What happens after surgery?

When you wake up after surgery you will probably still be very drowsy. You may not remember much about the first few hours. You may have some tubes attached to your body, such as a drip (intravenous infusion) to give you fluids until you’re able to eat and drink normally. A nurse will check your blood pressure regularly. The nurses will give you drugs to help control any pain or sickness. Always let them know if you’re in pain or feel sick.

When you’re fully awake, the ward staff will help you get up and move about, which will help you to recover quicker.

Your wound will be closed with clips or stitches. If it feels hot or painful, bleeds or leaks fluid, let your doctor know straight away.

You may find you need time to regain and rebuild your physical and emotional health. Your doctor will explain what to expect.

After your operation, try not to expect too much of yourself. How long it takes you to recover will depend on the type of operation you have had.

Some people have long-term physical effects after surgery. These may include nerve pain, nerve damage, impotence, lymphoedema and physical and emotional changes.

When you wake up after surgery

Knowing what will happen when you wake up after your operation can help you feel less anxious. It also prepares your family and friends for what to expect.

You will probably feel quite drowsy and may not remember much about the first couple of hours after you wake up. A nurse will take your blood pressure regularly so you might be aware of the blood pressure cuff tightening on your arm every so often.

Depending on the operation you have you may have some tubes attached to your body. If you had a small operation you may not have any tubes at all. Here’s a list of the most common types of tubes to have following an operation:

  • A drip (intravenous infusion) to give you fluids until you are able to eat and drink normally. This may only be for a few hours or a few days, depending on the operation you’ve had.
  • You may have a tube (drain) in your wound to drain excess fluid into a small bottle. This is usually removed after a few days.
  • A small tube (catheter) may be put into your bladder so that urine is drained into a collection bag. The catheter is usually removed when you start walking about.
  • Some people may have a tube that goes up the nose and down into the stomach. It’s called a naso-gastric tube and is used to remove fluid from the stomach until the bowel starts working again.

Not everyone will need all of these.

After surgery


You may have some pain after surgery, but this will be controlled with painkillers.

You can have painkillers as tablets or as injections, or through a tube into a vein in your hand or arm (cannula) connected to a pump. The pain control you’ll need will depend on the operation you’ve had. Some people have a continuous dose of painkiller into the spinal fluid through a fine tube and a pump. This is called an epidural. Always let the nurse know if you are still in pain.

After an abdomino-perineal resection, it may be uncomfortable to sit down, but this should gradually get better as the wound begins to heal.

Before you go home, your pain will be controlled by tablets. You’ll be given a prescription for painkillers you can take at home as needed.

Feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting)

The nurse will give you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) injections or drugs to help control any sickness. If you still feel sick, tell the nurse looking after you.

Moving around

You will be encouraged to get up fairly soon after your operation. The ward staff will help you with this as you may need some help to wash and go to the toilet. Once you are moving about more freely, you’ll probably be able to manage this for yourself.

Moving around will help you recover more quickly and help reduce the risk of complications.

Breathing and leg exercises can also help reduce the risk of problems that can happen after surgery, such as chest infections and blood clots. Your nurse or physiotherapist will teach you these exercises. You may also be given medication to help prevent blood clots forming in the first few days after your surgery. This is known as an anti-coagulant. It is given as an injection into the tissues just under the skin, usually in your tummy.

Wound care

The wound is closed using clips or stitches. These are usually removed after you go home by a practice nurse at your GP surgery. Some surgeons use dissolving stitches that don’t need to be removed. These will dissolve completely when the area is healed. You may be given antibiotics to help prevent wound infection.

It's important to let your nurse or doctor know straight away if your wound becomes hot, painful or begins to bleed or leak any fluids, even after you go home.


Your scar may feel itchy at first. It will look like a red line, which may feel a bit lumpy. This will gradually fade over time.

Immediate complications of surgery

This will depend on the type of operation you have. The most common complications after surgery are a wound infection, bleeding in the operation area, a chest infection or developing a blood clot.

The nurses will monitor you for these. Let them know straightaway if you have any bleeding, feel unwell, have symptoms of an infection such as a cough or discharge from your wound, or swelling and redness in a limb.

Going home

Depending on the type of operation you’ve had, you’ll probably be ready to go home 2–14 days after surgery. If you think that you might have problems when you go home (for example, if you live alone or have several flights of stairs to climb), let your nurse or the social worker know when you’re admitted to the ward. They can then arrange help before you leave hospital.

You’ll be given an appointment to attend an outpatient clinic for your post-operative check-up.

If you have stitches, clips or staples in your wound, these are usually taken out 7–10 days after the operation. Your practice nurse can do this. If you can’t leave home, a district nurse can visit you.

If you have a stoma, the hospital will give you stoma supplies to go home with. After this, you will need to order supplies from your chemist or direct from a specialist supply company. Your stoma care nurse can tell you about these.

Some people take longer than others to recover from their operation.

We have more information about getting ready to go home from hospital.

Enhanced Recovery Programme (ERP)

Some hospitals follow an Enhanced Recovery Programme that can help to reduce complications following surgery, and speed up recovery. It also involves you more in your own care. The programme involves careful planning before your operation so that you’re properly prepared. Any arrangements needed for you to go home will also be organised for you. You’ll be encouraged to take high-protein and high-calorie supplements before and after your surgery, and to start moving around as soon as possible, sometimes on the day of the operation. After you’ve gone home, you’ll be regularly reviewed to make sure that you are recovering well.

Your doctor will tell you if an enhanced recovery programme is suitable for you and if it’s available at your hospital.

Possible long-term effects of surgery

Many people do not have long-term effects after cancer surgery but some people may, depending on the operation. Before your operation, your surgeon or specialist nurse will explain these to you and the risk of them happening.

Some operations change the way your body looks or works. This can affect the way you feel about yourself physically and emotionally. There is a lot of support available. Talk to your nurse or doctor about your concerns. They should be able to help you or arrange for you to see a counsellor. You can also talk to our cancer support specialists.

Your operations will be carried out by a surgeon with experience in treating your type of cancer. You may also have a specialist nurse to support you. Before the operation, the nurse or surgeon will explain what procedures will be followed to make sure that you get the best possible care.

The way your body looks and works may have changed, especially if you need a colostomy. We have more information to help you if you have a colostomy. We also have more information to help you cope if your sex life has been affected.

Back to Surgery explained

Who might I meet?

A team of specialists will plan your surgery. This will include a surgeon who specialises in your type of cancer.

If you have a stoma

Adjusting to a stoma takes time but most people manage well with support from their stoma care nurse.

Sex life after bowel surgery

Treatments for anal cancer can have some effects on your sex life. Talk to your doctor or specialist nurse for advice.