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.

After your operation

When you wake up after surgery you will probably feel quite drowsy. You may not remember much about the first couple of hours after you wake up. A nurse will take your blood pressure regularly. Depending on the type of operation, you may have some tubes attached to your body. If you had a small operation, you may not have any tubes at all.

You may have some of the following, but not everyone will need all of these:

  • A drip (intravenous infusion) to give you fluids until you are eating and drinking normally.
  • A tube (drain) in your wound to drain extra fluid into a small bottle. This is usually removed after a few days.
  • A small tube (catheter) in your bladder that drains urine into a collection bag. It is usually removed when you start walking around.
  • A tube going up the nose and into the stomach (naso-gastric tube) to remove fluid from the stomach until the bowel starts working again.

Pain

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

  • as tablets
  • as injections
  • through a tube into a vein in your hand or arm (cannula), which is connected to a pump
  • as a continuous dose into the spinal fluid through a fine tube and a pump (epidural).

The pain control you need will depend on the type of operation you’ve had. Always let the nurse know if you are still in pain.

Painkillers occasionally make it difficult to have a bowel motion (constipation). If your bowels aren’t moving, let your nurses know. They can give you medicines to help them move more regularly.

After an APR, it may be uncomfortable to sit down. This will improve as the wound heals.

Moving around

After your operation, you’ll be encouraged to start moving around as soon as possible. Even if you have to stay in bed, it’s important to do regular leg movements and deep-breathing exercises. A physiotherapist or nurse will explain these exercises to you.

To reduce the risk of blood clots, you will wear special stockings. You may also be given injections under the skin of a drug (heparin) that prevents blood clots.

Feeling sick or being sick

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

Wound care

Your wounds may be closed with stitches, clips or staples. They are usually removed after you go home by a practice nurse at your GP surgery. Some surgeons use dissolving stitches that don’t need to be removed.

Sometimes your surgeon may use a flap of tissue to close the wound, instead of stitches or clips. This is more likely if you have already had radiotherapy. If your doctors used a flap of tissue to close your wound, you will need to lie on your side for 3 to 4 days after your operation. This reduces pressure on your wound and helps it heal.

You will be able to sit on your bottom for five minutes at first.

As things improve, you slowly increase this amount of time.

Your doctor will give you advice about how often to change position when sitting.

You may be given antibiotics to help prevent any wound infection. While you are in hospital and after you go home, tell your nurse or doctor straight away if your wound:

  • becomes hot
  • becomes painful
  • bleeds
  • leaks any fluids.


After surgery

Pain

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.

Scars

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.


Recovering after your surgery

How long it takes to recover after surgery depends on the type of operation and your general health. Some people may go home the same day. But if your surgery is more complicated, you may need to stay in hospital for longer.

You may need a few weeks or several months to recover fully depending on the operation you had. Your surgeon or nurse will explain what to expect or you can find more details about recovery in our information about different types of cancer.

Recovery is often a gradual process. You may find you need time to regain and rebuild your physical and emotional health.

Some people have new challenges to cope with, such as physical effects caused by your cancer or the surgery. It may take time to adjust to these and to find out what’s now normal for you.


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.

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