Having surgery for ovarian cancer
Information about what happens before surgery for ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer and primary peritoneal cancer, and what to expect afterwards.
If you have very early ovarian cancer, it may be possible to have surgery that means you can still get pregnant.
We have more information about types of surgery for ovarian cancer.
Your doctor and nurse will talk to you about preparing for your operation. Some hospitals may provide support to help you to get fitter. They may have a programme to help you to:
- be more physically active – this may help you to get fitter before surgery
- stop smoking – this will reduce your risk of chest problems and help your wound to heal after the operation.
- eat healthily
- cut down on alcohol.
This is sometimes called prehabilitation or enhanced recovery. We have more information about preparing for surgery.
Talking to your doctor
Your doctor and nurse will explain the operation to you. Make sure you discuss any questions or concerns about the operation with them.
You will also see the doctor who gives the anaesthetic (anaesthetist). They will talk to you about the anaesthetic. They will also explain how any pain will be controlled after surgery.
Going into hospital
You will usually be admitted to hospital on the day of your operation or the day before.
Your nurse will give you elastic stockings (TED stockings) to wear during and after the operation. These prevent blood clots forming in your legs.
You may also be given something to drink to help clear your bowel before the operation. Sometimes a doctor or nurse will draw marks on your tummy in case you need a stoma.
How quickly you recover will depend on the type of operation you have.
You will be encouraged to start moving around as soon as possible. While you are in bed, it is important to move your legs regularly and do deep breathing exercises. This helps prevent chest infections and blood clots. A physiotherapist or nurse will show you how to do these exercises.
You may have regular injections of a blood-thinning drug to reduce the risk of blood clots. If you need them after you go home, your nurse will teach you, or someone you live with, how to give the injection. Or they can arrange for a district nurse to do this.
Drips and drains
You will be given fluids into a vein in your hand or arm. This is called a drip or intravenous infusion. This will be taken out as soon as you are eating and drinking normally.
You may have a drainage tube in your wound or tummy to drain extra fluid into a small bottle. This is usually removed after a few days.
It is normal to have some pain or discomfort for a few days after ovarian cancer surgery. But this can be controlled with painkillers. If the painkillers are not working, it is important to tell your doctor or nurse as soon as possible. They may change the dose or give you different painkillers.
Immediately after your operation, you may have strong painkillers. You may be given painkillers through one of the following:
By injection into a muscle
This is done by a nurse.
This is a small, thin tube in your back that goes into the space around your spinal cord. An epidural gives you continuous pain relief via a pump. You will not be able to walk around if you have an epidural in place.
A patient-controlled analgesia pump (PCA pump)
The pump is attached to a fine tube (cannula), in a vein in your arm. You control the pump using a handset that you press when you need more of the painkiller. It is fine to press the handset whenever you have pain. The pump is safe as it is set so that you cannot give yourself too much painkiller.
As pain starts to improve, you will be given milder painkillers as tablets. You may be given a supply to take home. Tell your nurse or doctor if you are still in pain. They can change the dose or give you a different painkiller.
The clips or stitches in your wound are usually removed after you go home. A practice nurse at your GP surgery can do this. Some stitches are absorbed by the body and do not need to be removed.
Wound infections can be a complication of surgery. If a wound is infected, it may:
- feel hot to touch
- look red
- look swollen
- leak fluid or pus (discharge)
- make you feel unwell
- cause you to have a fever or high temperature.
Tell your nurse or specialist doctor straight away if you get any of these symptoms, even after you go home. If you cannot talk to your hospital team, contact your GP or call the NHS urgent advice number on 111.
Wind and constipation
You may have difficulty emptying your bowels (constipation) for a few days after the operation. You may also have uncomfortable wind.
Tell the nurses if you have these symptoms. They can give you medicines to relieve discomfort and constipation. Constipation and wind usually get better once you are moving around more. Drinking plenty of fluids and eating high-fibre foods can also help.
We have more information about bladder and bowel problems.
When you go home will depend on the operation you have and how quickly you recover. You are usually in hospital for up to 1 week. If you have surgery for a very early-stage cancer, you may only be in hospital for a few days.
You will have a follow-up appointment with your surgeon and a nurse at a clinic. This will be arranged for you before you go home or soon after. If you live a distance from the hospital, you may have this appointment over the phone.
At this appointment, the surgeon will check your wound is healing and that you are recovering well. They will also explain the results of your operation and tell you more about the stage of the cancer.
They will tell you about any further treatment you may need. If you have any problems before your appointment, you can always phone them for advice.
You may have some light vaginal bleeding or a red-brown discharge for up to 6 weeks after surgery.
Tell your surgeon or specialist nurse straight away if the discharge:
- becomes bright red
- is heavy
- smells unpleasant
- contains clots.
If you cannot get through to your surgeon or specialist nurse, contact your GP or call the NHS urgent advice number on 111.
For 6 weeks after your operation, you should avoid:
- having sex
- placing anything in your vagina – including tampons
This will reduce the risk of infection and help your wounds to heal.
If you were still having periods, surgery that removes your ovaries will bring on menopause and you will not be able to get pregnant.
We have more information about managing the symptoms of menopause.
After 6 weeks, your wounds are likely to have healed. This means you should be able to have sex again. But it may take longer than this for your energy levels and sex drive to improve.
After surgery, you will need to take things easy for a few weeks. It can take 3 months or more to fully recover. It may take longer if you have chemotherapy as well.
For about 12 weeks, avoid any activity that:
- makes you breathless
- involves heavy lifting, pushing, pulling or stretching.
Your physiotherapist or nurse will give you advice.
You can gradually build up the amount of physical activity you do. We have more information about keeping active.
How soon you can drive will depend on the surgery you have and how quickly you recover. You need to feel comfortable wearing a seatbelt. You also need to be able to do an emergency stop if necessary.
Ask your nurse or doctor for advice. Some insurance companies have guidelines about this. It is a good idea to contact your insurance company to check before you start driving again.
Surgery for cancer of the ovary, fallopian tube or peritoneum is usually a major operation. It is natural to feel low or tearful after these types of surgery.
You are likely to feel tired. Your body needs time to recover and heal. This can make it harder to cope with the stress of having cancer and the difficult emotions you may be feeling.
As you recover, you may find it is easier to cope. It can help to talk about how you feel and get more support. Talk to your specialist nurse or give our cancer support specialists a call.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our ovarian cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ledermann, Raja, Fotopoulou et al. Newly diagnosed and relapsed epithelial ovarian carcinoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2013; Volume 24, Supplement 6. Updated online 2020. Available from www.esmo.org/guidelines (accessed July 2021)
Management of epithelial ovarian cancer. Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN). Nov 2013 revised 2018. Available from www.sign.ac.uk.
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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