Recovering from bowel cancer surgery
After surgery for bowel cancer, you will be encouraged to start moving around as soon as possible. Even if you have to stay in bed, it is important to do regular leg movements and deep-breathing exercises. A physiotherapist or nurse will explain these to you.
To reduce the risk of blood clots, you will wear TED stockings. Your nurse may also give you drugs to prevent blood clots. These are usually given as injections under the skin.
On the evening after your operation or the next day, a nurse will usually help you to get out of bed or sit up for a short time. Gradually, you will be able to sit or stand up for longer and start walking around the ward.
It is normal to have some pain and discomfort after your operation. Painkillers can help control this. If you are still in pain, tell the nurses. They might also need to change the dose or type of painkiller you are taking. Some painkillers can make you feel sick. Tell your nurse and they can give you medicines to help with sickness.
You may be given a spinal block during the operation. This is an injection of a long-lasting painkiller into the fluid around the spinal cord. It gives pain relief for up to 24 hours. Or you may have a continuous dose of painkiller into the spinal fluid through a fine tube and a pump. This is called an epidural.
Painkillers can also be given through a tube into a vein in your hand or arm (a cannula). The tube is connected to a pump. This is called a PCA (patient-controlled analgesia). You can give yourself an extra dose of painkiller when you need it by pressing a button on the pump. The machine is set so you get a safe dose.
Painkillers sometimes slow down your bowel function (constipation). If your bowels are not moving, tell your nurses. They can give you medicines to help.
Before you can go home, your pain needs to be controlled by tablets. You will be given a prescription for painkillers you can take at home as needed.
The nurse will give you anti-sickness medication if you feel sick or are being sick. If this does not work, tell your nurse. They may give you a different type of anti-sickness medication.
At first, you will be given fluids into a vein in your hand or arm. This is called a drip or intravenous infusion. When you are eating and drinking normally again, the drip is removed.
You usually have a tube put in during the operation to drain urine (pee) from your bladder. This is called a catheter. It is taken out when you are eating and drinking normally and can walk to the toilet.
You may have a nasogastric tube. This is a tube that goes up the nose and down into the stomach. It is used to remove fluid from the stomach until the bowel starts working again.
You may have a tube near to the operation wound that has a bottle attached to drain fluid away. A nurse will remove it after a few days, when fluid stops draining.
If you do not have a stoma, your wounds may be closed with stitches, clips or staples. A nurse at your GP surgery usually removes these after you go home. Sometimes a district nurse can come to your home to remove them. Some surgeons use dissolving stitches that do not need to be removed.
You may be given antibiotics to help prevent any wound infection. While you are in hospital and after you go home, tell your nurse or doctor straight away if your wound:
- becomes hot
- becomes painful
- leaks any fluids.
These can be signs that the wound is infected.
Depending on the type of operation you have had, you will probably be ready to go home 3 to 7 days after surgery.
Before leaving hospital, you will be given an appointment to go to at an outpatient clinic for your post-operative check-up. At the appointment, your doctor will talk to you about whether you need any further treatment, for example, chemotherapy.
If you have stitches, clips or staples in your wound, these are usually taken out 7 to 10 days after the operation. A nurse at your GP surgery can do this. If you cannot leave home, a district nurse can visit you.
If you have a stoma, the hospital will give you stoma supplies to take home. When you have used these, you will need to order supplies from your pharmacy or direct from a specialist supply company. Your stoma care nurse can tell you about these.
We have more information about about managing a stoma.
This will depend on the type of operation you had. The most common complications after surgery are:
- a wound infection (see above)
- bleeding in the operation area
- a chest infection
- a blood clot
- a leak from the join in your bowel.
The nurses will monitor you for these complications. Tell them straight away if you:
- have any bleeding
- feel unwell
- have symptoms of an infection, such as a cough or feeling shivery
- have signs of a wound infection
- have swelling and redness in a limb.
Most people who have surgery go home without complications. But if you do have any problems when you get home, tell your doctor straight away.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our bowel cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
R Glynne-Jones, PJ Nilson, C Aschele et al. ESMO-ESSO-ESTRO Clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up for anal cancer. July 2014. European Society of Medical Oncology. Available from www.esmo.org/Guidelines/Gastrointestinal-Cancers/Anal-Cancer (accessed October 2019).
National Institute for Health and Excellence (NICE). Colorectal cancer: diagnosis and management clinical guidelines. Updated December 2014. Available from www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg131 (accessed October 2019).
Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain & Ireland (ACPGBI). Volume 19. Issue S1. Guidelines for the management of cancer of the colon, rectum and anus. 2017. Available from www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/14631318/19/S1 (accessed October 2019).
BMJ. Best practice colorectal cancer. Updated 2018. Available from www.bestpractice.bmj.com/topics/en-gb/258 (accessed October 2019).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.
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