What happens after surgery?

When you wake up after surgery you will probably still be very drowsy. You may not remember much about the first few hours. You may have some tubes attached to your body, such as a drip (intravenous infusion) to give you fluids until you’re able to eat and drink normally. You may also have a drain to remove fluid from the wound.

After the operation, you’ll have chest x-rays to make sure your lung is working well. You will be encouraged to move around as soon as you can after surgery. This will help with your recovery.

Stitches are usually removed 7–10 days after the operation, unless you have dissolving stitches. The nurses will check your wound regularly to make sure there is no infection. You’ll have different types of painkillers to relieve any discomfort you have and help you breathe freely. There are different ways to treat pain. You may have your painkillers through a pump or directly into the chest through a thin tube called a catheter.

Always let your nurse know if you are in pain so they can treat it.

After your operation

You will have regular x-rays after your operation to make sure your lung is working properly.

The nurses and your physiotherapist will encourage you to start moving around as soon as possible. This is important to help with your recovery. They will show you some simple breathing exercises to help prevent chest infections and other possible complications.

Even if you have to stay in bed it’s important to keep moving your legs regularly. This helps your circulation and prevents blood clots. You’ll be given support stockings (TED stockings) to wear. Keep wearing them until the nurses advise that you can stop.

Your wound

If you don’t have dissolving stitches, you’ll usually have your stitches removed about 7–10 days after your operation.

A wound infection can be a complication of surgery. The nurses and surgeon will check your wound regularly while you are in hospital. Signs of a wound infection include warmth, redness or swelling around the wound, or discharge. You may also feel unwell with a fever. Tell your nurse or doctor if you have any of these symptoms after you go home.

Drips and drains

After your operation you’ll be given fluids into a vein in your hand or arm, called a drip or an intravenous infusion. Once you’re eating and drinking normally again it’s taken out.

You will have a tube into your chest draining fluid and air into a large bottle (called a chest drain). It’s usually taken out after a few days.


After surgery it’s normal to have some pain or discomfort but this can usually be controlled. You can have pain relief in different ways:

  • into a vein (intravenously)
  • into the space around your spinal cord
  • as an injection into a muscle
  • as tablets.

It’s important to have your pain well controlled so that you can breathe properly. This can reduce your risk of developing chest infections. Always let the doctor or nurses know if you are in any pain, so they can treat it as soon as possible.

Pain control through a pump

You may have painkillers given into a vein through a syringe connected to a pump. This can be set to give you a continuous dose of painkiller. You may have a handset you can press to give you more painkillers if you feel sore. The nurses set the pump so you cannot have too much painkiller (an overdose). So it’s safe to press it whenever you’re uncomfortable.

Pain control in the chest (local anaesthetic)

Some people are given painkillers directly into the area around the lung. You have it through a small tube put into the chest while you are still asleep. The doctor usually removes this after a few days. This is called an epidural or a paravertebral catheter.

You will be given painkiller tablets to take when you go home. You may have mild discomfort or pain in your chest for up to several weeks or months after surgery.

Some people have pain that starts weeks or months after their operation. This can happen if nerve endings that were damaged during surgery start to grow back. Talk to your specialist if this happens so that they can give you the right painkillers to control it.

Going home

You will usually be ready to go home about 3–7 days after your operation. Before you go home, you’ll be given an appointment for the outpatient clinic to see the surgeon and specialist nurse. At this appointment they will check your wound is healing properly and you are recovering well. They will also tell you more about the results of your operation, the stage of the cancer and any further treatment you might need.

This is a good opportunity to ask any further questions you have. At home you can gradually build up your strength and fitness with gentle exercise. Check with your doctor or physiotherapist which types of exercise are suitable for you. It can take many weeks, or even months, to recover from a lung operation, although some people recover more quickly than others.

We have more information about recovering after treatment.


Your doctor will tell you when it’s safe for you to start driving again after your surgery. It can take about 4–6 weeks for you to be fit enough. At first, you may find that the seatbelt presses on your wound and makes it sore. You can buy padding for seatbelts that may help to reduce this.

Some car insurance policies give specific time limits for not driving after chest surgery – check with your insurance company.

Back to Surgery explained

Who might I meet?

A team of specialists will plan your surgery. This will include a surgeon who specialises in your type of cancer.