Some people have surgery as a day patient, but surgery often involves a stay in hospital. This may be for several days or up to a few weeks. How long you stay depends on the type of surgery you have and whether or not you have reconstructive surgery.
After your operation, you will be encouraged to start moving around as soon as possible. This is an important part of your recovery. If you have to stay in bed, it is important to do regular leg movements and deep-breathing exercises. A physiotherapist will explain these to you.
If you have had a bigger operation, you may spend some time in intensive care immediately after the operation. This is a ward where you have one-to-one nursing care for as long as necessary to help you recover.
After the operation, it is likely that you will wake up with a number of drips, drains and tubes attached to you. These are gradually removed as you recover.
Operations to the mouth and throat area usually cause quite a lot of swelling. This can make eating and drinking uncomfortable for a time. Because of this, you will probably wake up from the operation with a tube going into a vein in your arm or neck (an intravenous drip). The nurses will give you fluids through this tube for a few days. They remove the drip when you are able to drink fluids again.
Drains and dressings
Depending on the extent of your surgery, you may have 1 or 2 thin, plastic drainage tubes coming from the operation area. The tubes have bottles attached to them to collect fluid from the wound. This helps the wound to heal. Drains usually stay in place for 2 to 7 days.
If you have had reconstructive surgery using tissue taken from another part of your body, you may also have stitches, a drain and a dressing on this area.
When you go home, a district nurse can check and dress your wound and drain (if it is still in) if necessary. Or you may be asked to go back to the hospital every few days to have it checked. If you do not have dissolvable stitches, you usually have your stitches or staples removed about 7 days after your operation.
You may not be able to eat for a short time while your tissue heals. This means you may have to get the food and nutrition you need through a feeding tube that goes into your stomach. This may be put in before or during the operation.
If you need a feeding tube, your cancer specialist will talk to you about this before your operation. Your dietitian will also talk to you and provide support afterwards. They will prescribe high-protein, high-calorie, liquid food, which is given through the tube.
Once your mouth and throat have healed, your surgeon may arrange for you to have a swallowing assessment by your speech and language therapist (SLT). This is to check whether you have any swallowing difficulties. When you can eat and swallow safely, the feeding tube is removed.
If you are going to have radiotherapy after your surgery, you may need a feeding tube until all your treatment is completed. This is because radiotherapy can give you a sore mouth and throat, which can make it difficult for you to eat.
If you need to go home with a feeding tube, your dietician, SLT or a nurse in the hospital can teach you and your family members or friends how to use and to look after it safely. You can also have daily home visits from community nutritional care nurses. They can help with feeding tube care and setting up the feeds.
You may have a small tube (catheter) to drain pee (urine) from your bladder into a collecting bag. This stops you having to get up to pee (pass urine). It also helps the doctors monitor how well your kidneys are working. It is usually removed after a couple of days.
Temporary tracheostomy tube
Sometimes surgery to the mouth or throat can cause temporary swelling around the throat. This can narrow the airway and make it difficult for you to breathe. If the type of surgery you are having is likely to cause this problem, the surgeon creates a small opening into the windpipe for you to breathe through. This is called a tracheostomy or stoma.
The opening is made in the lower part of the front of the neck. It is held open by a small plastic tube that is a few centimetres long. When the swelling from your operation goes down (after about 5 to 7 days) and you can breathe easily, the tube is taken out. The opening will then be left to heal over naturally.
If you have a tracheostomy, you cannot usually speak with the tube in place. But you can use a pen and paper, or a mobile phone, laptop or tablet to communicate with other people.
If you are likely to have a temporary tracheostomy after your operation, your surgeon will explain this to you before your operation. You will also have time to ask the specialist nurse or SLT questions about it before you have your surgery.