Recovering from Cancer Surgery

How fast you recover from surgery depends on the kind of surgery you had and your overall health, Be sure to ask your health care team what you might expect in the period right after your surgery.

Anesthesia

Anesthesia makes you unable to feel pain for a period of time. Depending on the type and extent of the operation, you may get drugs to make you sleep, too. In some cases, you may have a choice as to which type of anesthesia you prefer.

Local anesthesia is often used for minor surgeries, such as biopsies near the body surface. A needle is used to put a drug into the area. This numbs the nerves that cause pain. You stay awake and usually feel only pressure during the procedure.

Topical anesthesia is rubbed or sprayed onto a body surface instead of being put in with a needle. For example, a spray is sometimes used to numb the throat before a scope is passed down to the stomach or lungs.

Regional anesthesia (a nerve block or spinal anesthesia) numbs a larger part of the body, but you stay awake. For example, a needle can be used to put medicine into an area around the spinal cord, which affects certain nerves coming out of it. But a nerve block may also mean injecting medicine around nerves in the arms or legs. The location the injection is given depends on what part of the body needs to be numb. Medicine may be given as a single injection or as an ongoing infusion. You stay awake, but you may be given something to help you relax.

General anesthesia puts you into a deep sleep for the surgery. It’s often started by having you breathe in a drug through a face mask or by putting a drug into a vein in your arm. Once you are asleep, an endotracheal or ET tube is put in your throat to make it easy for you to breathe. Your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure will be closely watched during the surgery. A doctor or nurse who specializes in giving anesthesia watches you throughout the procedure and until you wake up. They also take out the ET tube when the operation is over.

If you had local anesthesia, 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 might take hours. People waking up from general anesthesia often feel “out of it” for some period of time. Things may seem hazy or dream-like for a while. You might not feel fully awake until the next day, and might have trouble remembering what happened on the day of surgery.

Tubes and catheters

Your throat may be sore for a while if you had an endotracheal (ET) tube. You might also have 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 urinating on your own.

Surgical drains

You may have a tube or tubes (called drains) coming out of the surgical opening in your skin. 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 might be done while you’re still in the hospital or later at the doctor’s office.

Eating and drinking

You may not feel 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’ll need to have signs of stomach and bowel activity before you’ll be allowed to eat. Along with checking your surgical wound and other parts of your body, your doctor or nurse will listen for bowel sounds in your belly and will ask if you have passed gas. These are signs that your digestive tract is starting to work normally again. You will probably be on a clear liquid diet until this happens. Once it does, you may get to try solid foods.

Activity

Your recovery right after surgery depends on many factors, including your health before the operation and how extensive the operation was.

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’re 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 lung infection (pneumonia).

Going home after surgery

Once you’re eating and walking, you may start hearing about plans for going home. Of course, this will depend on other factors too, such as the results of the surgery and tests done afterward. You will get pain medicine while you are in the hospital, and will be given a prescription for pain medicine to take at home if you need it. If you’re in pain, be sure to let your health care team know.

Your doctor will want to make sure you’re well enough to be home.

Before leaving, be sure that you understand these things:

  • How you will care for your wound (and drains) at home
  • What to look for that might need attention right away
  • What your activity limits are (driving, working, lifting, etc.)
  • Other restrictions (diet, those related to pain medicine, etc.)
  • What medicines to take and how often to take them, including pain medicines
  • Who to call with questions or problems if they come up (Make sure you know who to call if you have problems after hours or on the weekend.)
  • Whether you should be doing anything in terms of rehabilitation (physical activity or physical therapy)
  • When you need to see the doctor again

You may need help at home for a while after surgery. If family members or friends are unable to do all that’s needed, your health care team may be able to arrange to have a nurse or nurse’s aide visit you at home for a short while.

Other parts of recovery might take longer. Wounds heal at different rates in different people. Some operations, like a breast removal (mastectomy), could lead to permanent changes in your body. Others, such as a having an arm or leg removed (limb amputation), might affect how your body works, and you may need to learn new ways of doing things.

Fully understanding the likely result of the operation before it’s done is an important part of helping you adjust to the changes that have been made to your body. Be sure that all of your questions are answered up front. Be as specific as you need to with your questions, and make sure your health care team gives answers you can understand.

When to call your doctor after cancer surgery

At this time, you’re probably more in tune with your body than you’ve ever been in your life. You notice every physical change. Don’t take any physical symptoms you may have lightly. Be sure you know how to contact your health care team members after hours and on weekends and holidays.

Some surgery side effects are fleeting and minor, but others may be a sign of serious problems. You should not be the judge. Tell your doctor or nurse right away if you suffer from any of the following symptoms after surgery:

  • A fever of 100.5°F or greater when taken by mouth
  • Bleeding or unexplained bruising
  • Intense (shaking) chills
  • Pain or soreness at the surgical site that’s getting worse or not relieved with the pain medicine
  • Unusual pain, including intense headaches
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Having trouble urinating; pain when you urinate; or bloody, bad smelling, or cloudy urine
  • Any other signs mentioned by your doctor or nurse

Don’t hesitate to let your doctor know about any new problems or concerns you have. It’s always best to find out the cause of a problem so it can be dealt with right away.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: April 12, 2016 Last Revised: April 19, 2016

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