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.

When you wake up after surgery

Knowing what will happen when you wake up after your operation can help you feel less anxious. It also prepares your family and friends for what to expect.

You will probably feel quite drowsy and may not remember much about the first couple of hours after you wake up. A nurse will take your blood pressure regularly so you might be aware of the blood pressure cuff tightening on your arm every so often.

Depending on the operation you have you may have some tubes attached to your body. Here’s a list of the most common types of tubes to have following an operation:

  • A drip (intravenous infusion) to give you fluids until you are able to eat and drink normally.
  • You will have a tube (drain) in your wound to drain excess fluid into a small bottle. This is usually removed after a few days.
  • A small tube (catheter) may be put into your bladder so that urine is drained into a collection bag. The catheter is usually removed when you start walking about.

Not everyone will need all of these.


After your operation

You may be looked after in an intensive-care or high-dependency unit for a few days after your operation.

The nurses and your physiotherapist will encourage you to start moving around as soon as possible. This is very important to help with your recovery. They will encourage you to go for short walks as soon as you can.

Even if you have to stay in bed, it is important to move your legs regularly. This helps your circulation and prevents blood clots.

The nurses will give you elastic stockings (TED stockings) to wear. Keep wearing them until the nurses say you can stop.

Your breathing

The nurses may give you oxygen through:

  • a mask over your mouth and nose
  • small, soft tubes in each nostril.

Your physiotherapist or nurse will show you simple breathing exercises to do. These help prevent chest infections and other complications.

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

Pain

After lung surgery, it is normal to have some pain or discomfort. There are different ways it can be managed. Your nurse will assess you to make sure your pain is well controlled. This is important so you can do your breathing exercises. These exercises help reduce your risk of a chest infection.

Tell your nurse or doctor if you are in pain, so they can treat it as soon as possible.

For the first few days after surgery, you may have painkillers in one of the following ways:

  • Into a vein in your hand or arm. This could be through a drip (infusion), or a syringe connected to a small pump. These give you a constant dose of painkillers. You may be able to give yourself more painkillers when you need them, by pressing a button.
  • Into the space around your spinal cord (an epidural). This is through a thin tube that the surgeon puts into your back during the operation.
  • Into the chest area (a paravertebral block). This is through a thin tube that the surgeon puts into your chest during the operation.

Your doctor will give you painkiller tablets to take when you go home. You may have mild discomfort or pain in your chest. This can last for up to several weeks or months after surgery. 

Some people get new pain weeks or months after their operation. This is usually caused by nerves starting to repair after surgery. Tell your doctor or nurse about any new pain. They can check it and make sure you have the right painkillers.

Drips and drains

After your operation, you will probably have the following tubes:

  • A drip (infusion) into a vein in your hand or arm. The nurse gives you fluids through it. They remove it when you are eating and drinking normally again.
  • Chest drain. You may have one or more tubes into your chest. The tubes drain fluid and air into a big bottle. Your nurse checks it regularly. They will show you how to take care of it when you are walking about. They usually take it out after a few days.
  • A small tube (catheter). This goes into your bladder. It drains urine into a collection bag. The nurses usually remove the catheter when you start walking about.

Your wound

You usually have your stitches, clips or staples removed about 7 to 10 days after your operation. Or if you have dissolvable stitches, they disappear over a few weeks.

Your nurses and surgeon check your wound regularly while you are in hospital. Tell them if:

  • you have any redness, pain or swelling
  • it feels hot
  • there is any fluid leaking.

These are possible signs of a wound infection.

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


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.


Pain

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 3 to 7 days after your operation.

You will have an appointment to come back to the outpatient clinic a few weeks later. At the appointment, the doctor checks your wound is healing and you are recovering well. They talk to you about the results of your operation and any more treatment you might need. You can also ask any questions you have.


Recovering

It may take many weeks or months to recover from a lung operation. Some people recover more quickly than others. You need to pace yourself and try not to do too much, too soon. You need to avoid:

  • heavy lifting
  • straining your arm on the affected side.

You can slowly build up your strength and fitness with light exercise, such as short walks. It is important to keep doing any exercises the physiotherapist has given you. To help your recovery, try to:

Keep taking your painkillers as your pharmacist explained. Contact your nurse if:

  • the pain is not controlled
  • you have any problems with your wound.

You can have sex again when you feel comfortable to.

Driving

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

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

Back to Surgery

Surgery for lung cancer

Surgery is usually only possible for people with lung cancer when the cancer is found very early. It is mainly used to treat non-small cell lung cancer.

Who might I meet?

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

Follow-up care after surgery

You will have follow-up appointments after your surgery to check on your recovery and talk about any concerns.