What happens after surgery?

When you wake up after surgery you will probably still be drowsy. You may not remember much about the first few hours. You may have some tubes attached to your body, such as a drip to give you fluids until you are able to eat and drink normally. A nurse will check your blood pressure regularly. The nurses will give you drugs to help control any pain or sickness.

When you are fully awake, the ward staff will help you get up and move about.

Your wound will be closed with clips or stitches. If it feels hot or painful, bleeds or leaks fluid, let your doctor or nurse know straight away.

After your operation, try not to expect too much of yourself. How long it takes you to recover will depend on the type of operation you have had and your general health.

Some people have long-term physical effects after surgery. These may include nerve pain, nerve damage, erectile dysfunction, and physical and emotional changes. The hospital staff can tell you more about what to expect.

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 few 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 may have some tubes attached to you. If you had a small operation you may not have any tubes at all. Below is a list of the most common tubes you might have following an operation:

  • A drip (intravenous infusion) into a vein in your arm or hand to give you fluids until you can eat and drink normally. This may be for a few hours or a few days, depending on the operation you have had.
  • 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 tubes. You can read about what to expect in the surgery section of the type of cancer you have.

After surgery


You may have some pain after surgery, but this will be controlled with painkillers.

You can have painkillers as tablets or as injections, or through a tube into a vein in your hand or arm (cannula) connected to a pump.

The pain control you will need will depend on the operation you have had. Some people have a continuous dose of painkiller into the spinal fluid through a fine tube and a pump. This is called an epidural. Always let the nurses know if you are still in pain.

Before you go home, your pain will be controlled by tablets. You will be given painkillers you can take at home and told how often you should take them.

Feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting)

Your nurse will give you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) injections or tablets to help control any sickness. If you still feel sick, tell the nurse looking after you.

Moving around

You will be encouraged to get up fairly soon after your operation. The ward staff will 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.

Moving around will help you recover more quickly and help reduce the risk of complications.

Breathing and leg exercises can also help reduce the risk of problems that can happen after surgery, such as chest infections and blood clots. Your nurse or physiotherapist will teach you these exercises.

You may also be given medication to help prevent blood clots forming in the first few days after your operation. This is called an anti-coagulant. It is given as an injection just under the skin, usually in your tummy.

Wound care

The wound is closed using clips or stitches. These are usually removed after you go home by a practice nurse at your GP surgery. Some surgeons use dissolving stitches that do not need to be removed. These will dissolve completely when the area is healed. You may be given antibiotics to help prevent wound infection.

It is important to let your nurse or doctor know straight away if your wound becomes hot, painful or begins to bleed or leak any fluids, even after you go home.


Your scar may feel itchy at first. It will look like a red line, which may feel a bit lumpy. This will gradually fade over time.

Immediate complications of surgery

Complications will depend on the type of operation you have. The most common complications after surgery are a wound infection, bleeding from the wound, a chest infection or developing a blood clot.

The nurses will monitor you for these. Let them know straightaway if you have any bleeding, feel unwell, have symptoms of an infection, such as a cough or discharge from your wound, or swelling and redness in a limb.

Beginning to recover

How long it takes you to recover depends on the operation you have had, your general health and whether you need any further treatment.

You may feel ready to get on with your life and look forward to the future. But it is common to have days when you feel less positive, or to have days when you still feel some of the effects of treatment.

To begin with, it is important not to expect too much of yourself and to accept that it will take you time to recover. If you think about everything you have been through, it is not surprising that your recovery is likely to be gradual.

You may have new challenges to cope with, such as physical effects caused by your cancer or its treatment. It usually takes time to adjust to these and to find out what is now normal for you.

After your treatment is over, how often you will see your specialist for check-ups will depend on the type of cancer and the treatment you had. It is important to remember that support is available to help you with any physical or emotional problems you have.

Many people find that over time they settle back into their usual routines. You may want to think about planning a holiday, seeing friends, getting out more, getting back to hobbies or sport, and going back to work.

The experience of cancer may also make you think about what is important in your life, and you may make positive changes as a result.

Possible long-term effects of surgery

Some people may have long-term effects after cancer surgery. Before your operation, your surgeon or specialist nurse will explain these to you and the risk of them happening.

There are different long-term effects depending on the operation you have. For example, removing the lymph nodes in some areas of the body, such as the armpit or groin may cause swelling called lymphoedema. This is not a common problem and is more likely if you have had radiotherapy to the area too. An operation to remove the womb causes infertility. Surgery to the prostate may cause difficulty getting an erection (erectile dysfunction) or bladder problems.

Some operations change the way your body looks or works. This can affect the way you feel about yourself physically and emotionally. There is a lot of support available. Talk to your nurse or doctor about your concerns. They should be able to help you or arrange for you to see a counsellor. You can also talk to our cancer support specialists.

There is more information on long-term effects after surgery in our information about your type of cancer.

Back to Surgery

Who might I meet?

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