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Recovery after surgery

After every surgery there is a period of recovery. How long this takes will depend on your age, the type of surgery you had, and your general health. It may take a few days or a week to recover from a less complex operation, but it can take a few months to recover from major surgery. It’s important to follow your surgeon’s advice, and try to be patient and allow yourself time to recover.

After surgery you will be moved to a recovery room. This is an area near the operating theatre with monitoring equipment and specially trained staff. In some hospitals, it may be called a recovery ward or post-anaesthesia care unit. It might be a shared space or a private room.

People who need a high level of care will go into the high dependency unit (HDU) or intensive care unit (ICU). You will be moved out of the HDU or ICU as your condition improves. Your doctor will tell you before surgery if it’s likely you will be moved to one of these units.

While the anaesthetic wears off, a nurse will check your wound, pain levels and vital signs. They will also give you medicine or fluids to help reduce side effects caused by the anaesthetic.

You will have several tubes in place. Once you have woken up, you will be moved from the recovery room:

  • If you had day surgery, you will stay in the day surgery unit until the nurses decide that you are well enough to go home.
  • If you had surgery as an inpatient and are staying in hospital to recover, you will be moved from the recovery room to a ward.

intravenous (IV) drip

  • inserted into a vein in your arm or hand
  • gives you fluids until you can eat and drink again
  • also used to give pain relief and other medicines
  • may be in place for a few hours or a few days, depending on the surgery

tube down your throat

  • used to help you breathe during surgery
  • usually removed while you are under anaesthetic, but may stay in if you go to HDU or ICU

surgical drain

  • a tube placed in the wound to drain excess fluid into a small bottle or bag
  • usually removed after a few days, depending on how much fluid is being collected and the type of operation

urinary catheter

  • a thin tube that drains urine from your bladder into a bag
  • usually removed when you start walking after surgery and can get to the toilet, or when your epidural pain relief is finished

nasogastric (NG) tube

  • a thin tube placed through your nose into the stomach
  • removes fluid from the stomach until bowel function returns to normal

feeding tube

  • may be needed if you are unable to eat and drink after surgery
  • a tube is placed into your stomach or small bowel, either through your nostril or through an opening on the outside of your abdomen
  • usually temporary, but sometimes permanent

On the hospital ward, nurses and doctors will check you regularly. They will usually take your blood pressure, pulse and temperature, look at your wound and change the dressing as needed. They will also check your pain is under control and give you pain relief if required. You will be able to have visitors during the hospital’s visiting hours.

Help with your recovery

While you are recovering on the ward, your health care team will check your progress and help you with the following:

Pain control – You may have some pain and discomfort for several days after surgery, but you will be given pain-relieving medicines to manage this. Let your doctor or nurse know if you are in pain so they can adjust your medicines to make you as comfortable as possible. Do not wait until the pain is severe. Pain relief options may include:

  • an injection or ongoing infusion of local anaesthetic into the wound, near the spinal column (epidural), or near a nerve to block pain to a specific area of the body (nerve block)
  • an injection of strong pain medicine into a muscle or under the skin
  • a PCA (patient-controlled analgesia) device, which is a pump that is connected to a drip or small plastic tube that allows you to receive a set dose of medicine when you press a button
  • slow-acting pills or tablets which you take regularly, and fast-acting pills or tablets you can ask for if in pain.

Movement and circulation – When you return from theatre, you may be wearing compression stockings, pneumatic cuffs and/or have an injection of medicine to prevent blood clots forming in the deep veins of your legs or pelvis (deep vein thrombosis or DVT). Some people may have to wear the stockings and have the injections for a couple of weeks after the surgery.

Your health care team will encourage you to walk the day after the surgery. Moving around as much as possible will speed up your recovery and reduce the chance of blood clots or infections. The nurses or a physiotherapist will give you advice about this.

Eating and drinking – Most people can start eating and drinking either the same day or the day after surgery. Some people begin by drinking broth and soup before progressing to plain foods and small meals, while others receive nutrition through a drip or a feeding tube for a short while rather than eating. If the cancer and surgery affect your digestive system (e.g. mouth, throat, oesophagus, stomach, bowel), you will need to follow the dietitian’s advice about eating and drinking.

Bathing – The timing of your first shower depends on how you are feeling and the type of surgery that you have had – some people shower the same day or the next day if they are up to it. The nurses will probably encourage you to shower as soon as possible because it is a good reason to get out of bed. They can help you if you need to remove dressings or cover them to keep them from getting wet. If you can’t get up and move, the nurses will help you bathe in bed.

General anaesthesia is very safe, but like any medical procedure you may experience some side effects. Most side effects occur immediately after surgery and don’t last long. Tell your medical team if any of these side effects get worse or worry you.

Nausea and vomiting – You may feel nauseous or vomit within 24 hours of surgery, but medicines can control these side effects. Sometimes  vomiting makes you feel better. Some people continue to feel nauseous for the first few days after they are discharged from hospital, but this will improve.

Chills and dizziness – Your body may cool down after surgery, so you could feel cold and shiver. During surgery and recovery, your temperature will be maintained, usually with warm blankets. Some people feel dizzy from the anaesthetic or because they may be dehydrated. You will be monitored to make sure you aren’t getting an infection.

Agitation – You might cry or feel restless and anxious when you wake up. Some people feel like their arms or legs are twitchy. This is a normal reaction.

Sore throat or hoarseness – The tube put in your throat to help you breathe during surgery can leave you with a sore throat or a hoarse voice after the tube is removed. This should get better in a few days.

Mental effects – You may feel confused, groggy or “fuzzy” in the minutes or hours after you wake up, and you may not remember why you had surgery. Most people make a full recovery within a few hours. In some cases, this may take days, particularly in elderly people and those who had memory problems before surgery.

Rarely, people have ongoing mental effects (such as fogginess or mild memory loss) for a week or several months after surgery. This is called postoperative cognitive dysfunction. The reasons for this are unknown.

Sometimes problems or complications occur after surgery. It’s very unlikely that all of the problems described here would apply to you. Your surgeon can give you a better idea of your actual risks. Generally, the more complex the surgery is, the higher the chance of problems. Most complications are minor and can be treated easily, but some can have serious consequences.

Infection – The biggest risk of infection after surgery is at the wound site, but infection can also occur in the chest, in the urine, and around the catheter site. There are some simple ways to prevent infections. Sometimes the doctor will prescribe medicine before surgery (prophylactic antibiotics). You will be checked for signs of infection, such as tenderness, redness or swelling around the wound or a discharge from the wound, cloudy urine, cough, shortness of breath and chest pain.

Bleeding – Bleeding can happen inside the body (internally) or outside the body (externally). Internal bleeding can occur if a blood vessel breaks free after surgery, and external bleeding can occur if a wound opens up. Your medical team will manage any bleeding after surgery. This could include giving you a blood transfusion or further surgery to stop the bleeding.

Blood clots or DVT – All surgery and some cancers increase the risk of developing blood clots in the deep veins of the legs or pelvis (deep vein thrombosis or DVT). There are ways to prevent this from occurring, including being given injections of anti-clotting drugs, wearing compression stockings during and after surgery, and using devices called pneumatic cuffs to keep the calf muscles moving during and sometimes after surgery. The nurses will also encourage you to get out of bed and move around as soon as you feel up to it.

Lung problems – After surgery, it may be painful to breathe or cough for a period of time, particularly if you have had surgery to your chest or abdomen. A physiotherapist will teach you breathing or coughing exercises to help keep your lungs clear and reduce the risk of a chest infection. You will be encouraged to get out of bed and move around. Your medical team will observe your breathing during your recovery and provide medicine to control any pain you have.

Weak muscles (atrophy) – Although you’ll need to rest after surgery, it’s important to get up and move around. If you aren’t mobile, your muscles may get weak (atrophy). A physiotherapist or nurse may help you to get moving as soon as possible and give you advice about the best exercises to do. Generally, the sooner you are able to get up and move, the better your recovery will be.

If you have day surgery, you will be discharged from hospital after you leave the recovery room. It’s important to arrange ahead of time for someone to take you home after surgery. The nurses will contact this person to tell them when you’ll be ready to leave. If you live alone, you will need to organise another adult to stay with you the first night you are home, or arrange to stay with family or friends.

If you have surgery as an inpatient, you will be discharged when the medical team thinks you are healthy enough to leave. Some people stay in hospital for a day or two, but others stay for longer – in some cases several weeks or, rarely, months.

Along with discharge papers, the medical team may give you:

  • scan and test results
  • instructions about recovering at home
  • guidelines about when to contact your doctor
  • the date for your follow-up appointment with your surgeon
  • a medical certificate for your employer
  • insurance forms, bills or receipts
  • a list of any medicines/prescriptions, or a small supply of medicines (such as pain relief)
  • referrals to support services such as a dietitian or social worker.

If you want specific paperwork (e.g. a letter for your employer) and it isn’t offered, you can request it from the doctor, nurses, receptionist or social worker. You may want to make a copy of your paperwork for your records or to show your GP (although in most cases, a copy will be automatically sent to your GP).

Most people go home after discharge, but some go to an inpatient rehabilitation centre to help them get safely back on their feet before going home.

Looking after yourself at home is one of the most important parts of your recovery. Your progress will depend on the type of surgery you have, what support you have at home, your overall fitness and health, and whether you are having other cancer treatments.

When you first get home

Keep in mind that recovery will take time, and try not to expect too much of yourself. A community nurse may visit to check on you and change any dressings, or you might see your GP for similar care.

Although it’s a good idea to stay active and do gentle exercise while you are recovering, it’s also important to follow your doctor’s advice about restrictions, such as avoiding heavy lifting.

You may find that you tire easily and need to rest during the day. Get plenty of sleep and take breaks if you feel tired, and ask family or friends to assist you with household tasks, such as cooking and laundry. If you require home care services, speak to the social worker at your hospital or treatment centre, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out what is available in your area.

After you leave hospital, you will need to continue taking care of yourself at home. Be guided by your doctor, but these general suggestions may help.

Pain

  • This is the most common side effect.
  • Take pain-relieving medicine as prescribed by your health care team.
  • If your pain isn’t under control, gets worse, or if the medicine causes side effects, talk to your surgeon, the nurse listed on your discharge paperwork, or your GP.
  • If the pain gets significantly worse, consider going to the emergency department.

Download our booklet ‘Overcoming Cancer Pain’

Wound care

  • Follow any instructions you are given about how to care for the wound.
  • If the wound is left open, clean it with mild soap and warm water and pat it dry. Avoid putting lotions or perfumes on the wound and the area around it.
  • If you have dressings, you might need to keep them dry while you shower.
  • If adhesive strips have been used, they should fall off within a few weeks, or you will be told when to remove them. Removing the strips too soon might cause the wound to open.
  • Your doctor or nurse will remove any stitches or staples during a follow-up appointment.
  • Any bruising around the surgical site will fade over a few weeks. To avoid infection, don’t pick at any scabs around the wound.
  • Take the full course of any prescribed antibiotics to completely kill bacteria and prevent infection.

Eating and drinking

  • Some people feel sick after surgery. When you feel like eating, try basic foods such as rice and toast before going back to your usual diet.
  • Your health care team may instruct you to follow a special diet.
  • Eat fibre and drink plenty of water to avoid constipation, and avoid alcohol, especially if you are taking medicine.
  • Focus on eating a balanced diet (including proteins such as lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, milk, yoghurt, nuts, seeds and legumes/beans), to help your body recover from surgery.
  • See a dietitian for advice on managing special dietary needs or eating problems.

Download our ‘Nutrition and Cancer’ booklet

Self-care

  • Unless you’ve been told otherwise, you will be able to shower. Gently wash your body and pat yourself dry. Depending on the type of surgery you had, you may not be able to take a bath for a few weeks after surgery.
  • Avoid straining when going to the toilet, as this can cause a small tear around the anus (anal fissure) and/or swollen veins (haemorrhoids or piles).
  • If you are taking strong pain medicine, your treatment team will suggest or prescribe a suitable laxative to prevent constipation.
  • Some people have trouble controlling their bowel or bladder after some types of surgery. Incontinence is usually temporary. For support, see a continence nurse or call the National Continence Helpline on 1800 33 00 66.

Drains and stomas

  • Some people go home with a temporary drain or tube near the surgical site to collect extra fluid leaving the body.
  • The hospital may organise a community nurse to visit you to empty the drain or tube. More commonly your health care team will show you how to keep the tube clean until your next appointment.
  • Some people go home with a stoma. A stomal therapy nurse will see you after the operation to teach you how to look after the stoma.

Daily activities

  • Check with your surgeon when you can start doing your regular activities and what to avoid – such as heavy lifting, driving or sexual intercourse.
  • Try to do some gentle exercise. This can help reduce tiredness, build up strength, lift mood and speed up a return to usual activities. The right exercise for you depends on what you are used to, how you feel, and your doctor’s advice.
  • You may need to organise some equipment to help you move safely, such as a walker or shower chair. Try to organise this before surgery so it is ready when you get home. A physiotherapist or occupational therapist will show you how to use this equipment.

Download our booklet ‘Exercise for People Living with Cancer’ booklet

Contact your doctor immediately or go to the nearest hospital emergency department if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • increased bleeding, swelling, redness, pus or drainage, or an unusual smell from the wound or around any tubes, drains or stomas
  • a fever of 38°C or higher
  • chills or shivering
  • swelling in your limbs
  • sudden, severe pain
  • pain or burning when urinating
  • nausea or vomiting for 12 hours or more
  • trouble breathing, walking or doing things you could do before the surgery
  • other symptoms or changes that the surgeon warned you to look out for.

The timing of your first follow-up appointment will depend on the type of surgery and your recovery. You may see the surgeon or your GP, depending on where you live and what the medical team recommends.

Your doctor will check your wound and remove any stitches, staples, adhesives or drains that are still in place. If your pathology results are available, your doctor will discuss these with you and tell you whether you will need any further treatment. You will also be given advice about getting back to your normal activities. You may need to ask about your specific concerns, such as driving, exercising and going back to work.

You may continue to have regular appointments with your surgeon to monitor your health, manage any long-term side effects and check that the cancer hasn’t come back or spread. During these check-ups, you will usually have a physical examination and you may have blood tests, x-rays or scans. You will also be able to discuss how you’re feeling and mention any concerns you may have.

When a follow-up appointment or test is approaching, many people find that they think more about the cancer and may feel anxious. Talk to your treatment team or call
Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you are finding it hard to manage this anxiety.

How often you will need to see your doctor will depend on the type and stage of cancer. Check with your doctor if you are unsure about your follow-up plan. Check-ups will be needed less often if you have no further problems. Between follow-up appointments, let your doctor know immediately of any symptoms or health problems. 

Rehabilitation (rehab) can help you regain physical strength and get back to your daily activities. It may include physical therapy (e.g. in a pool or gym), or specialist care if you need help with speaking, eating, walking and other tasks. You could have rehab as an inpatient or outpatient.

Inpatient rehab – Some people recover in a rehab centre or nursing home before returning home. The length of your stay depends on the speed of your recovery.

Outpatient rehab – You can visit a rehab facility as a day patient to receive similar care. Hospital staff or your GP can organise this.

Featured resource

Understanding Surgery

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed April 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Andrew Spillane, Surgical Oncologist, Melanoma Institute of Australia, and Professor of Surgical Oncology, The University of Sydney Northern Clinical School, NSW; Lynne Hendrick, Consumer; Judy Holland, Physiotherapist, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Kara Hutchinson, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Declan Murphy, Urologist and Director of Genitourinary Oncology, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Prof Stephan Schug, Director of Pain Medicine, Royal Perth Hospital, and Chair of Anaesthesiology and Pain Medicine, The University of Western Australia Medical School, WA; Dr Emma Secomb, Specialist Surgeon, Hinterland Surgical Centre, QLD.