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. You can find more details about recovery in our information about different types of cancer.

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. You can read about what to expect in the surgery section of the type of cancer you have.


After surgery

Pain

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

You can also have pain killers 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.

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.

Scars

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.


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.

There are different long-term effects depending on the operation you have. For example, removing the lymph nodes in some areas of the body such as the armpit or groin may cause swelling called lymphoedema. This isn’t a common problem and is more likely if you’ve had radiotherapy to the area too. An operation to remove the womb causes infertility. Surgery to the prostate may cause difficulty getting an erection (impotence) or bladder problems.

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.

There’s more information on long-term effects after surgery in our content about your type of cancer.


Recovering after your surgery

How long it takes to recover after surgery depends on the type of operation and your general health. Some people may go home the same day. But if your surgery is more complicated, you may need to stay in hospital for longer.

You may need a few weeks or several months to recover fully depending on the operation you had. Your surgeon or nurse will explain what to expect or you can find more details about recovery in our information about different types of cancer.

Recovery is often a gradual process. You may find you need time to regain and rebuild your physical and emotional health.

Some people have new challenges to cope with, such as physical effects caused by your cancer or the surgery. It may take time to adjust to these and to find out what’s now normal for you.


Back to Surgery explained

What is surgery and what is it used for?

Surgery is cutting away body tissue. It is used to treat lots of types of cancer.

What happens before the surgery?

Your surgery will be carefully planned to make sure you are well cared for.

Who might I meet?

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

Follow-up care after surgery

You will have follow-up appointments after your surgery to check on your recovery and any new symptoms.