What happens after surgery?
Your surgeon or nurse will explain what to expect after surgery. This will include the possible side effects, and how long it may take to recover from your surgery.
Knowing what to expect when you wake up after your operation can make you feel less anxious. It also helps to prepare your family and friends.
After a big operation, you may wake up in the intensive care unit or a high-dependency recovery unit. You will usually move back to the ward within a day or so. Your nurse will explain all this before your operation.
You will probably feel drowsy at first due to the anaesthetic. You may not remember much about the first few hours after you wake up. A nurse will do regular checks on you. They will monitor your blood pressure, so you might be aware of the machine cuff tightening on your arm every so often.
Drips and tubes
You may have some tubes attached to your body. If you had a small operation, you may not have any. Or you may only have 1 or 2 tubes. But after bigger operations you may have the following:
A drip (intravenous infusion) put into a vein in the arm or hand. This is to give you fluids until you can eat and drink normally. You may have it in for a few hours or a few days, depending on the operation you have had.
A tube (drain) put into your wound to drain extra fluid into a small bottle. This is usually removed after a few days.
A small tube put into a vein in the hand to give you continuous painkillers until you can take tablets.
A small tube (catheter) put into your bladder so that urine (pee) is drained into a collection bag. The catheter is usually removed when you start walking about. For some types of surgery the catheter may need to be kept in for longer.
Not everyone needs all these tubes. It depends on the operation you have. For example, you are more likely to need a catheter if you are having surgery to the pelvic area. The surgeon usually puts in any tubes you need during the operation.
You may have tubes we do not mention here. For example, after surgery to the tummy area you may have a tube down your nose and into your tummy to keep it empty. This stops you from feeling sick. You can read more about what to expect in the surgery section of the type of cancer you have.
Enhanced recovery programme
Some hospitals have an enhanced recovery programme for certain types of surgery. This is designed to help you recover from surgery as quickly as possible.
Research has shown that the sooner you can get out of bed and start walking, eating and drinking after having an operation, the shorter your recovery time will be. Depending on the type of surgery you had, a physiotherapist may show you specific exercises to help your recovery.
You may have some pain after surgery. You can control pain with painkillers. Managing pain is important to help you move about soon after surgery, and to make sure you can take deep breaths. This helps to reduce some possible complications of surgery. If your painkillers are not working well for you, tell your nurses.
The type of pain control you need will depend on the operation you have. If you have a small operation, you may only need tablets afterwards to control the pain. Painkillers can also be taken:
As an injection
You can have painkillers as an injection under the skin (subcutaneous), into a muscle or directly into a vein (intravenous).
Into a vein through a pump
You can also have them through a tube called a cannula, which goes into a vein in the hand. The cannula is connected to a pump. Sometimes, you can control the pump using a handset. You press the handset when you need more of the painkiller. It is fine to press it whenever you have pain. The pump is designed so that you cannot give yourself too much painkiller.
Into a fine tube in the back (epidural)
You might have a continuous dose of painkiller into the spinal fluid through a fine tube and a pump. This is called an epidural.
By the time you go home, your pain will be controlled by tablets. You will be given painkillers to take at home, and told how often you should take them.
Feeling sick and being sick
You will be encouraged to get up soon after your operation. The ward staff can help you with washing and going to the toilet. Once you are moving about more freely, you will probably be able to manage this for yourself.
Reducing the risk of complications
Moving around reduces the risk of complications and helps you recover more quickly. Breathing and leg exercises can also help reduce the risk of problems such as chest infections and blood clots. Your nurse or physiotherapist will show you how to do these exercises. They may also give you written information to guide you.
Preventing blood clots
In the first few days after your operation, you may have medicines to help prevent blood clots forming. These medicines are called anticoagulants. Usually, they are injected under the skin, but they are sometimes given as tablets. After some types of major surgery, you may need injections for several weeks. If this is the case, the nurses will show you how to do them yourself at home.
Looking after your wound
The wound is closed using clips or stitches. These are usually removed by a practice nurse at your GP surgery after you go home. Some surgeons use dissolving stitches that do not need to be removed. They dissolve completely when the area has healed. While you are in hospital, the nurses and doctors will check your wound to make sure it is healing well.
Before you go home, the nurses will give you advice. They may:
- explain how to keep the wound clean
- tell you if and when any dressings should be changed or removed
- tell you not to remove the dressing yourself – some dressings are only removed at a hospital appointment
- give you a letter for your practice nurse or district nurses.
The nurse might also ask you to check your wound or the area around the dressing (if you have to keep the dressing on). This is to check there are no signs of infection and that it is healing well. You may have a district nurse who will do this.
Signs of infection can include:
- heat, redness, pain, swelling or a change in colour over the wound, around the scar, or both
- fluid coming from the wound (discharge)
- a temperature above 38°C or above 100.4°F (a fever)
- feeling shivery and shaky
- feeling generally unwell.
If you have any signs of infection, contact your doctor or nurse straight away. You may be given a hospital number to call.
Your nurse or doctor will look at the wound and may take a swab to send for testing. They may prescribe antibiotics to treat an infection.
We have more information about infection.
Scars are likely to be:
- red if you have white skin
- darker if you have dark skin
- firm and slightly raised
- itchy at first.
Over time, scars will flatten and fade. Everyone’s skin heals differently. If you have dark skin or fair, freckled skin, scars can take longer to fade.
Possible complications of surgery
Some complications will depend on the type of operation you have. Your doctor and nurse will talk to you about these before you have surgery.
The most common, general complications after surgery are:
- a wound infection (see above)
- bleeding from the wound – tell your nurse or doctor if you have any bleeding from your wound
- a chest infection – tell your nurse if you have a cough, green or yellow mucus, shortness of breath or a high temperature
- developing a blood clot – tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you have pain, redness or swelling in a leg or arm, breathlessness or chest pain.
The nurses and doctors will monitor you for these symptoms. Tell them straight away if you have any of these symptoms or feel unwell.
How long you stay in hospital for will depend on the type of surgery you have had. The planned date for you to go home is called your expected date of discharge (EDD). The EDD helps you and your healthcare team prepare for you to go home. We have more information about finishing treatment.
Usually a ward nurse or key worker will make the plans for you to go home. If needed, they will involve other healthcare professionals such as dietitians, physiotherapists and occupational therapists.
Your nurse will arrange transport for you to get home if needed. You will be given enough medicines for 1 to 2 weeks. The nurse or hospital pharmacist will explain how to take them.
Your nurse or doctor may also give you advice about things you should do to help you recover. They may also advise you about certain things you need to avoid or be careful with until you recover. Depending on your operation, this could include:
- lifting or heavy work in or around the home
- certain physical activities or exercises you usually do
- having sex.
Before you leave hospital, you may be given a letter to take to your GP. It is important to make sure your GP gets the letter as soon as possible. If you are not given a letter to take with you, your hospital team should have contacted your GP electronically (using the internet).
If you need a district nurse, the ward nurses will organise this before you go home. District nurses can give injections and look after catheters and drains.
You should also be given 24-hour telephone numbers for your hospital team, in case you need to contact them. Your hospital team will tell you if you need to contact them directly about certain symptoms.
The time it takes you to recover depends on:
- the operation you had
- any complications you may have had
- your general health.
It is important not to expect too much of yourself too soon. For many people, recovery is likely to be gradual.
You may have lots of different emotions after you go home. You may feel ready to get on with your life and make plans. But there may be days when you feel less positive, or feel the physical effects of your surgery.
There are also things you can do to help your recovery:
- follow the advice you were given by your healthcare team
- keep up with any exercises you were asked to do
- eat healthily
- get enough rest
- do some gentle exercise and try to build it up gradually.
You may have new challenges to cope with, depending on the operation you had. This may be a change to how a part of the body works or looks. Or you may have to get used to eating differently than you did before your operation. It takes time to adjust to these changes and find out what is now normal for you.
After a few weeks, you will go back to the hospital to see your surgeon for a check-up.
You may have long-term effects after cancer surgery. Some may improve with time, but others are permanent. Before your operation, your surgeon or nurse will explain any long-term effects and the risk of them happening.
There are different long-term effects depending on the operation you have. For example:
Changes to how your body looks or works
Some operations change the way your body looks or works. This can affect how you think and feel about your body (called body image). It may cause problems with anxiety or depression. Tell your specialist nurse or doctor about how you feel. They can help you, or arrange for you to see a counsellor. You can also talk to our cancer support specialists. There is a lot of support available.
You can read more about long-term effects after surgery in our information about the type of cancer you have.
It is natural to feel anxious before your appointment. Taking a family member or friend with you for support can help. They can also help you to remember what was said. It is a good idea to write a list of your questions and concerns before the appointment.
What to expect when you see your surgeon
The surgeon will examine the operation area and the scar to make sure everything is healing well. Depending on the operation you had, they may check whether it has had any effect on movement in that part of the body.
Some people may need further help after surgery. A physiotherapist can help you improve your mobility. An occupational therapist (OT) can help you manage your everyday activities. We have more information about your multidisciplinary team (MDT) for surgery.
Driving after surgery
How soon you can drive will depend on the extent of the surgery you have had. It will also depend on how quickly you recover. You will need to feel comfortable wearing a seatbelt and be able to do an emergency stop if necessary. Some insurance policies give specific time limits, so it is a good idea to contact your insurance company to check you are covered before driving again. You can also contact the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) for advice.
The results of your operation
Your surgeon will explain the results of your operation. They will also tell you what they found in the tissue they removed (pathology). They may be able to tell you more about the stage of the cancer. They will explain if you need to see a cancer doctor (oncologist) to talk about further treatment.
It is not unusual to need more treatment after surgery. For example, you may have chemotherapy or radiotherapy to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. Or you might need treatment to get rid of, or shrink, any cancer that was not completely removed.
If you do not need further treatment after surgery, you will have more follow-up appointments.
Your follow-up will depend on the type of cancer you have and your situation. You may need regular follow-up appointments at first. But after some time, you might have them less often. They may be face to face, or by telephone. Your follow-up may involve regular blood tests, scans or procedures, depending on the type of cancer.
At your appointment, your doctor will examine you and ask how you have been feeling. They will explain if you need any other tests.
Some follow-up appointments might be with a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) rather than the doctor. You may have been advised about certain symptoms to look out for and when to contact your nurse for advice.
If you notice any new symptoms between appointments, you can contact your doctor or specialist nurse for advice.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our general surgery information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
National Institute for Health and Excellence (NICE). Surgical site infections: prevention and treatment NICE guidelines (NG125). April 2019. Available from: www.nice.org.uk (accessed August 2019).
National Institute for Health and Excellence (NICE). Venous thromboembolism in over 16s: reducing the risk of hospital-acquired deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism NICE guidelines (NG89). March 2018. Available from: www.nice.org.uk (accessed August 2019).
Wyntner-Blyth V and Moorthy K. Prehabilitation: preparing patients for surgery. BMJ 2017; 358: j3702 doi: 10.1136/bmj. j3702 (accessed August 2019).
The British Association of Urological Surgeons Limited (baus.org.uk). The BAUS Enhanced Recovery Programme. Available from: www.baus.org.uk (accessed July 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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