What happens after surgery?

After your operation, you’ll probably stay in the intensive care unit for a few days. This is normal and does not mean the surgery did not go well.

To make sure you are not in pain, you’ll be given painkillers. These can be given through a small tube placed into the space around your spinal cord (epidural). Painkillers can also be given through a pump controlled by you. This is called patient-controlled analgesia (PCA).

You may have several drips and drains coming out of your body. You’ll probably need to keep them for a few days. Drips give you fluids to keep you hydrated and give you nutrients until you can eat again. Drains help remove any fluid that may build-up close to the operation.

After the operation you’ll start by drinking small sips of liquid until you’re able to drink normally. During surgery, a small feeding tube may have been placed into your small bowel. You can be fed through the tube while you are not able to eat and drink. The tube is removed after 4-6 weeks.

You may lose a lot of weight after surgery. Try not to worry too much about it. It is normal and you will be able to put on weight again when you start eating properly.

After your operation

Most people will be nursed in the intensive care or a high-dependency unit for a few days after their operation. A machine called a ventilator may be used to help you to breathe for a few hours. All of this is normal and doesn’t mean your operation has gone badly or that there are complications.


You’ll probably have some pain and discomfort after the operation. Your doctor or nurse will explain how your pain will be controlled.

You may be given painkillers into the space around your spinal cord, through a very fine tube placed in your back during surgery. The tube connects to a pump, which gives you a continuous dose of painkillers. This is called an epidural.

Another way to control pain is through patient-controlled analgesia (PCA). A painkiller is given through a pump that allows you to give yourself an extra dose of pain relief if you need to.

It’s important to let the staff caring for you know if you’re still in pain. Mild discomfort or pain in your chest can last for several weeks and you’ll be given some painkillers to take home with you.

Drips and drains

You may have several drips and drains attached to your body for a few days after surgery, including:

  • An intravenous (IV) drip – This is used to give you fluids until you’re able to eat and drink again.
  • A nasogastric (NG) tube – This is a fine tube that passes down your nose into your stomach or small intestine. It allows any fluids to be removed so that you don’t feel sick. This helps the operation area recover.
  • Chest drains – These are tubes put into your chest during the operation to drain away any fluid that may have collected around the lungs. The fluid drains into a bottle beside your bed. Let your doctor or nurse know if the drains are uncomfortable.
  • Abdominal drain – A tube may be put into your tummy (abdomen) to help drain off fluid and prevent swelling.
  • Urinary catheter – Sometimes a tube is put into the bladder to drain your urine into a collecting bag. This will be removed as soon as you’re up and about.

You’ll be encouraged to get out of bed and move around as soon as possible. This helps reduce the risk of complications after surgery, such as blood clots and infections. Your nurses will show you how to manage your drips and drains while walking.

A physiotherapist will help you clear your lungs of any fluid that may have built up as a result of your operation. You’ll be taught deep breathing exercises to help keep your lungs clear and regular leg movements to prevent blood clots forming in your legs. A physiotherapist or nurse will help you with this.

Eating and drinking

You’ll only be allowed sips of liquid until your doctor is happy that the join in the oesophagus is healing. You’ll usually be able to drink normally after a few days.

You may be scared to swallow at first. You may also have a bad taste in your mouth – mouthwashes can help with this. Your surgeon may suggest a special type of x-ray to make sure the join between the oesophagus and stomach has fully healed.

Some surgeons will put a small feeding tube (a jejunostomy tube) directly into the small bowel during surgery. You can be fed through this while you’re not able to eat or drink. The tube is put into the middle part of the small bowel (the jejunum) through a small cut made in the wall of the tummy. When you’re eating well enough to not need extra support, it will be removed.

This is usually after 4–6 weeks.

Gradually, you’ll be able to eat and drink small amounts normally again. You’ll see a dietitian, who will give you support and advice. However, you’ll probably lose quite a lot of weight in the first few weeks after your operation. Try not to worry about this too much. The weight loss is normal and should slow down once you begin eating well. Losing weight doesn’t mean that your cancer has come back.

You may also have some diarrhoea for a while. This can usually be controlled with medicine if it continues.

Back to Surgery explained

Surgery for oesophageal cancer

Different types of surgery are used to treat oesophageal cancer. The operation you have will depend on the size and position of the 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.