Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families

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Recovery from cancer surgery

From anesthesia

If you had local anesthesia (an-es-THEE-zhuh), you may be allowed to go home shortly after the surgery. People who get regional or general anesthesia are taken to the recovery room to be watched closely while the effects of the drugs wear off. This may take hours. People waking up from general anesthesia often feel “out of it” for some time. Things may seem hazy or dream-like for a while. You may not feel like you are fully awake until the next day, and might have trouble remembering what happened on the day of surgery.

Your recovery right after surgery depends on many factors, including your health before the operation and how extensive the operation was. You will get pain medicine while in the hospital, and will be given a prescription for pain medicine to take at home if you need it. Throughout your hospital stay, be aware that there are many different medicines available to help you control your pain. If you are in pain and it’s holding up your recovery, be sure to let your health care team know.

Your throat may be sore for a while from the endotracheal (ET) tube. You may also have a tube (called a Foley catheter) draining urine from your bladder into a bag. This may be taken out soon after surgery, but may need to be put back in if you have trouble passing urine on your own.


You may have a tube or tubes (called drains) coming out of the surgical opening in your skin (usually near the incision [in-sih-zhun] site). Drains allow the excess fluid that collects at the surgery site to leave the body. Your doctor will probably take them out once they stop collecting fluid, usually a few days after the operation. This may be done while you are still in the hospital or later at the doctor’s office.

Eating and drinking

You may not feel much like eating or drinking, but this is an important part of the recovery process. Your health care team may start you out with ice chips or clear liquids. They will check that you are passing urine normally and may want to measure the amount of urine you make by having you go in a special container.

The stomach and intestines (digestive tract) is one of the last parts of the body to recover from the drugs used during surgery. You will need to have signs of stomach and bowel activity before you will be allowed to eat. Along with checking your surgical wound and other parts of your body, your doctor will listen for bowel sounds in your belly and will ask if you have passed gas. These are signs that your bowel is starting to work normally again. You will likely be on a clear liquid diet until this happens. Once it does, you may get to try solid foods.


Your health care team will probably try to have you move around as soon as possible after surgery. They may even have you out of bed and walking the same day. While this may be hard at first, it helps speed your recovery by getting your digestive tract moving. It also helps your circulation and helps prevent blood clots from forming in your legs. Again, be sure to let your team know if you are having a lot of pain, so they can give you medicine to control it.

Your team may also encourage you to do deep breathing exercises. This helps fully inflate your lungs and reduces the risk of pneumonia.

Last Medical Review: 08/19/2013
Last Revised: 08/19/2013