What happens after cervical cancer surgery?

It is important to start moving around soon after surgery. If you have to stay in bed, you will be shown how to do leg and breathing exercises.

Your nurse will take care of any drips or drains you have, and the dressings on your wounds. It is normal to feel some pain or discomfort for a few days, but painkillers should help with this.

Before you go home, you will be given advice about:

  • looking after yourself as you recover
  • who to contact if you have problems
  • when to expect the results of the operation and your next appointment
  • medications you need to take, including injections to prevent blood clots.

It is rare to have long-term complications from surgery for cervical cancer. Rarely, women may have bladder, bowel or sexual problems, or swelling in one or both legs.

If you develop any problems after your surgery, tell your surgeon or nurse so that you can get the right kind of help.

Recovery

How quickly you recover will depend on the type of operation you have and if you had abdominal or laparoscopic surgery.

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 is to help prevent chest infections and blood clots. A physiotherapist will show you how to do these exercises. You will also have daily injections of a blood thinning drug to reduce the risk of blood clots. If you have had lymph nodes removed from your groin, you will be encouraged to put your feet up when you are sitting. This helps to reduce leg swelling.


Drips and drains

You will be given fluids into a vein in your hand or arm. This is called a drip or an intravenous (IV) 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 (abdomen) to drain excess fluid into a small bottle. The drain is usually removed after a few days.


Urinary catheter

You will have a tube (catheter) to drain urine from your bladder. It is usually taken out a few days after your surgery. Sometimes after a radical hysterectomy or trachelectomy, some women have difficulty passing urine once their catheter has been removed. This is temporary. If it happens, a catheter is put into the bladder for 2 to 3 weeks until the bladder recovers.


Pain

It is normal to have some pain or discomfort for a few days after surgery. But this can be controlled with painkillers. It is important to let your doctor or nurse know as soon as possible if the pain is not controlled, so that they can change your painkillers.

Immediately after your operation you may have strong painkillers. You may be given painkillers through one of the following straight after your operation:

  • By injection into a muscle – The nurses will do this for you.
  • An epidural – This is a small, thin tube in your back that goes into the space around your spinal cord. An epidural will give you continuous pain relief.
  • 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 designed so that you cannot give yourself too much painkiller

When you no longer need strong painkillers, 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, so they can adjust the dose or give you a different painkiller.


Your wound

The surgeon will close your wound using clips, stitches or sometimes skin glue. Clips or stitches are usually removed after you go home. A practice nurse at your GP surgery can do this. Some stitches, called dissolving stitches, can be absorbed by the body and do not need to be removed.

Wound infections can be a complication of the surgery. Signs of wound infection include:

  • heat
  • redness
  • swelling
  • discharge (fluid or pus coming from the wound)
  • feeling unwell
  • a fever or high temperature.

Tell your nurse or doctor if you get any of these symptoms, even after you go home. If you can’t talk to your hospital team, tell your GP or out of hours service.


Constipation

If you are having problems opening your bowels after surgery, tell your doctor or nurse. They can give you a laxative to help your bowels move. See your GP if you have problems after being discharged from hospital.


Low mood

Many women experience low mood about three days after surgery. This may last for 24 to 48 hours. It is a normal reaction to a stressful event such as surgery after being diagnosed with cancer. Your nurse specialist will be able to support you.


Going home

Before you go home, you will be given an appointment to attend an outpatient clinic to get the results of the operation and for your post-operative check-up.

A nurse will give you instructions on how to look after yourself as you recover.

If you need to go home with a urinary catheter, the hospital team can arrange for a district nurse to visit you at home to check how things are.

If you have any concerns, talk to the nurse about these. It is important that you follow the advice you are given.

When I got home from my operation, I found just going up the stairs could be uncomfortable and tiring. But my family was there for support, so I got lots of rest.

Paulina


Blood thinning injections

It is important to continue with daily blood thinning injections for four weeks after the operation. You will be given a supply of injections to take home. A nurse will show you how to inject yourself. If you are not able to inject yourself, they will show a relative or friend how to do this or arrange for a district nurse to do it for you.


Vaginal care

After a hysterectomy or trachelectomy, you may have a vaginal discharge for up to six weeks. This is usually reddish-brown in colour. Contact your doctor straight away if the discharge:

  • becomes bright red
  • is heavy
  • smells unpleasant
  • contains clots.

Your doctor or nurse will advise you to have a shower daily. They will also advise you not to have sex or place anything in your vagina (such as tampons) for about six weeks after your surgery. You should also avoid swimming. This is so the surgical area can heal properly and to reduce the risk of infection.


Sex

Your surgeon will usually advise you not to have sex for at least six weeks after your operation. This is to give your wound time to heal properly. After that, you will be able to get back to your usual sex life. But it is not unusual to need more time before you feel ready, especially if you are having other treatments as well.


Physical activity

It is important to avoid strenuous physical activity for several weeks after your operation. This is usually for about 6 weeks after laparoscopic surgery and for about 12 weeks after abdominal surgery. You will need to avoid strenuous activities, such as:

  • activities that make you breathless
  • anything that involves heavy lifting, pushing, pulling or stretching.

Your physiotherapist or nurse will be able to give you advice about physical activity.


Driving

Some women find it uncomfortable to drive for a few weeks after their surgery. Ask your nurse or doctor for advice on when it will be safe for you to start driving again. Some insurance companies have guidelines about this. You may want to contact your insurer to check you are covered to drive.


Getting support

Some women take longer than others to recover from their operation. If you are having problems, it may be helpful to talk to someone. Your clinical nurse specialist or our cancer support specialists (0808 808 00 00) are always happy to talk to you. They may be able to put you in touch with a counsellor or a support group in your area, so you can discuss your experiences with other women who are in a similar situation. You can also go to our Online Community to share experiences and information with other women going through the same thing.


Possible long-term complications of surgery

Some women may have bladder, bowel or sexual problems after a radical hysterectomy or radical trachelectomy. This can happen if nerves that control the bladder, bowel or sexual response are damaged during the operation. Your surgeon may use nerve-sparing or nerve-preserving surgery to reduce the risk of these complications.

If your lymph nodes have been removed, there is a risk you will develop swelling in one or both legs. This is called lymphoedema. It is caused by a build-up of lymph fluid that cannot drain away because the lymph nodes have been removed. It is more likely to happen if you have radiotherapy or chemoradiation to the pelvic area after surgery.

If you develop any problems after your surgery, tell your surgeon or nurse so that you can get the right kind of help.

Most women will not have long-term complications after surgery for cervical cancer. However, if you have radiotherapy or chemoradiation as well as surgery, you are more likely to develop long-term complications.

Back to Surgery for cervical cancer

Follow-up care after surgery

After surgery you have an appointment with your surgeon to check on your recovery and discuss the results of your operation.