No matter what kind of surgery you have, it will probably make you feel tired and drained. Even if your pain is under control, surgery can be physically and emotionally stressful.
Your medical team will talk to you about your recovery – 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. Follow your surgeon’s advice, and try to be patient and allow yourself time to recover.
Hospital recovery room
Immediately after surgery, you will be moved from the operating theatre to a large area nearby with medical monitoring equipment and specially trained staff. This is the recovery room. 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.
Some people who need a high level of care will go into the high dependency unit (HDU) or intensive care unit (ICU). This allows you to be closely monitored so potential problems can be identified and treated early. 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.
You may have had a tube down your throat during the surgery to help you breathe (intubation). This will be removed while you are under anaesthetic, but your mouth and throat may feel temporarily dry or sore.
While the anaesthetic wears off, a nurse will monitor your vital signs, check the wound and your pain levels, and give you medicine or fluids to help you feel better and reduce side effects caused by the anaesthetic (see below). You’ll probably receive pain medicine through a tube connected to a vein in your hand or arm (intravenous drip), and there might be some drains to remove waste and fluid from your body (see below). The surgeon or anaesthetist may examine you again while you are in the recovery room.
You will be moved from the recovery room once you have woken up from the anaesthetic.
In some cases, people are allowed visitors while they are in the recovery room. Each hospital has different policies, e.g. only one visitor at a time.
If you are staying in hospital to recover (i.e. you had surgery as an inpatient), you will be moved from the recovery room to a ward. You will be looked after by nurses and other health professionals, such as a physiotherapist or dietitian. If you have day surgery, you will usually be able to go home soon after the surgery.
While you are on the ward, nurses will check you regularly. They will usually take your blood pressure, pulse and temperature, check your wound and change the dressing as needed. You will be able to have visitors during the hospital’s visiting hours.
Tubes and drains
Depending on the surgery, you may have some tubes or drains attached to your body.
Drip (intravenous infusion) in your hand or arm – gives you fluids until you can eat and drink normally. This may be in place for a few hours or a few days, depending on the surgery.
Tube (drain) in the wound – drains excess fluid into a small bottle. This is usually removed after a few days.
Small tube (catheter) in your bladder – to drain urine into a bag. This is usually removed when you start walking after surgery.
Tube in the nose (nasogastric tube) – goes down into the stomach and removes fluid from the stomach until bowel function returns to normal.
Help with your recovery
While you are recovering on the hospital ward, the nurses will monitor your progress and help you with the following:
You may be given a PCA (patient-controlled analgesia) device, which is a pump that is connected to a drip or cannula that allows you to receive a dose of medicine when you press a button. The PCA is programmed to prevent you from overdosing.
You may receive pain medicine as a tablet instead. Tell the doctor or nursing staff if you’re in pain or the pain worsens.
Movement and circulation
When you return from theatre, you may be wearing compression stockings and/or have an injection of medicine to prevent blood clots forming in the deep veins of your legs (deep vein thrombosis or DVT).
Try to get up and move around as much as possible to help 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 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. You can also read Nutrition and Cancer.
The timing of your first shower depends on how you are feeling – 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.
Side effects of general anaesthetic
Nausea and vomiting
You may feel nauseous or vomit within 24 hours of surgery, but there are medicines to control these side effects. Sometimes vomiting makes you feel better. Some people continue to feel nauseated 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 may feel cold and shiver. During the 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.
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.
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.
Tell your medical team if any of these side effects get worse or worry you.
Sometimes complications occur after surgery. It’s very unlikely that all of the complications described here would be relevant to your situation. Your surgeon can give you a better idea of your actual risks. Generally, the more complex the surgery is, the higher the chance of complications. Most complications are minor and can be treated easily; rarely, complications can have serious consequences.
The biggest risk of infection after surgery is at the wound site, but infection can also occur in the chest 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 monitored for signs of infection, such as redness around the wound or a discharge from the wound, cloudy urine, cough, shortness of breath and chest pain.
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 post-surgery bleeding. This could include giving you a blood transfusion or further surgery to stop 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.
After surgery, it may be painful to breathe or cough for a period of time. You will be encouraged to do deep breathing exercises and to get out of bed and move around. Your medical team will monitor 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 nurse or physiotherapist 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.
Leaving hospital (discharge)
If you have day surgery, you will be discharged from hospital after you leave the recovery room. It’s important to prearrange 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 have inpatient surgery, 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
- 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).
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 for your records or to show to your GP, but in most cases, paperwork will be automatically sent to them.
Most people go home after discharge, but some go to an inpatient rehabilitation centre to help them get safely back on their feet and return home. See information about rehabilitation.
Questions to ask before you leave hospital
Your medical team will give you information about your care so you can continue to recover safely. These are some questions that you may consider asking before you are discharged.
- Will the wound dressing need to to be taken out or will they dissolve?
- Can I have a shower or bath?
- be changed? Who will do this?
- When can I go back to work?
- What medicines do I need to take?
- Are there any symptoms that I should keep an eye out for?
- Questions to ask before you leave hospital
- Can I eat my usual diet?
- When do I need to see my doctor for a check-up?
- Can I do my usual activities (e.g. exercise, housework, driving)?
- Who should I call if I have a problem?
Taking care of yourself at home
Looking after yourself at home is one of the most important parts of your recovery. Your rate of improvement and 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.
If you live alone, it’s a good idea to organise another adult to stay with you at home the first night after discharge, or to arrange to stay with family or friends.
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. There are many aspects of your recovery that you will need to monitor in the first few days and weeks.
The most common side effect of surgery is pain. Take pain relief 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 GP.
If you are prescribed antibiotics, take the full course as instructed. You may feel better after a few days, but you will need to take the entire course to completely kill bacteria and prevent infection.
For more information about pain relief, see Overcoming Cancer Pain.
When to call the doctor or go to hospital
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 from the wound or around any tubes, drains or stomas
- a fever over 38 ̊C
- 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.
Your nurse will give you instructions about how to care for the wound. Clean it with mild soap and warm water and pat it dry, and avoid putting lotions or perfumes on the wound and the area around it. Your nurse will also explain how to change the dressings.
If adhesive strips have been used to close the wound, they should fall off within a few weeks, or you will be told when to remove them. If you remove the strips too soon, the wound might open. Your doctor or nurse will remove any stitches or staples during a follow-up appointment.
You might have some bruising around the surgical site, but this will fade over a few weeks. Try not to pick at any scabs around the wound, as this can cause infection.
“After the wide local excision, the wound looked red and was sore, but this improved.” - Pete
Surgery often leaves a scar. In most cases, your doctor will do everything they can to make the scar less noticeable. How your scar looks will change over many months. Most scars will improve and fade with time.
Reducing stiffness and pain – Once the wound is fully healed, you may find it helpful to:
• moisturise the scar to reduce any itching
• do stretching exercises to improve your range of motion
• massage the scar a few times a day
• apply silicone tape or gel strips that put gentle pressure on the scar.
Precautions – It’s important to avoid putting stress or strain on the wound until it is healed and there are no other medical issues such as blood clots, infections or trapped pockets of fluid under the skin (seroma). Ask your surgeon when you can start treating your scar. It’s also important to protect scars from the sun, as sunburn can worsen scarring.
Other treatments – Talk to your surgeon, a physiotherapist or occupational therapist about other ways to improve the appearance of scars. A dermatologist may be able to treat problem scars with a laser.
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. If you require home help services, speak to the hospital social worker or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out what is available in your area.
Unless you’ve been told otherwise, you will be able to shower. Wash your body as gently as possible and pat yourself dry. If you have dressings, you might need to keep them dry while you shower – your nurse will give you instructions.
Going to the toilet
Try not to strain when you go to the toilet, as this can cause small tears around the anus and swollen veins (haemorrhoids or piles). If you are taking strong pain medicine, you may also need to take medicine to help prevent constipation. If you haven’t had a bowel movement within a few days of the surgery, your pharmacist or doctor can give you advice or medicine to help.
Some people have trouble holding urine or bowel movements (incontinence) after surgery, especially abdominal surgery. This is usually temporary. Ask your surgeon or GP if you can speak to a continence nurse, who can help treat or manage this problem. For more information, call the National Continence Helpline on 1800 33 00 66 or visit continence.org.au or bladderbowel.gov.au.
Drains and tubes
Some people go home with a temporary drain or tube near the surgical site to collect extra fluid leaving the body. The hospital will usually organise a community nurse to visit you to empty the drain or tube.
Eating and drinking
Some people feel queasy after surgery. When you feel like eating, try basic foods such as rice and toast before going back to your usual diet (or following the special diet you were instructed to eat). Eat fibre and drink plenty of water to avoid constipation, and avoid alcohol, especially if you are taking medicine.
Try to do some gentle exercise to build up your strength. A physiotherapist can help you with this. Your doctor will discuss activities that should be avoided, such as heavy lifting, driving or sexual intercourse. It may be several weeks before you return to your usual activities. See Exercise for People Living with Cancer for more information.
You may also need some equipment to help you move safely, such as a walker, cane, shower chair or ramp. A physiotherapist or occupational therapist will show you how to use this equipment.
If the surgeon removes lymph nodes (glands) from your armpit or pelvic area, the lymph fluid may no longer drain properly and your arm or leg may swell. This is called lymphoedema. You may have to wear compression sleeves or stockings to manage this. For more information, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or visit the Australasian Lymphology Association website.
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. If you have been told not to drive, you may need someone to drive you to the appointment. It’s also a good idea to take someone with you for support and to take notes.
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 specific things, such as driving, exercising and going back to work.
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 and other tasks. You could have rehab as an inpatient or outpatient.
Common types of rehabilitation therapy
- Physiotherapy - a physiotherapist can help you learn how to move more easily, improve your range of motion, develop muscle strength and improve balance. They can tailor a program to help you return to your usual activities.
- Speech therapy - a speech pathologist can help restore speech if your ability to speak clearly has been affected by surgery. They also work with people who have difficulty swallowing food and drink after cancer treatment.
- Occupational therapy - an occupational therapist can help you manage everyday personal tasks (e.g. showering, dressing). They can also give you strategies and aids to help you manage fatigue and maintain your independence.
- Exercise physiology - an exercise physiologist can help with increasing physical activity and exercising safely to improve circulation and mobility, increase your heart and lung fitness, and help you return to your usual activities.
- Nutritional support - a dietitian can explain how to manage any special dietary needs or any ongoing problems with food and eating after surgery. They can also help you choose the best foods for your situation.
To find a health service that provides rehabiltation therapy after cancer surgery, search for one using My Cancer Guide.
Coping with your emotions
For some people, having cancer is like an emotional roller-coaster. You may have many mixed feelings before, during and after surgery. It’s natural to feel anxious, scared or angry.
When you return home, you might feel vulnerable or helpless. You may need help doing things you used to be able to do yourself, such as laundry or cooking. If your body has changed, it may affect your self-esteem.
If you have ongoing feelings of sadness and feel down most of the time, you may be depressed. Signs and symptoms of depression include:
- feeling overwhelmed, sad, irritable and frustrated
- not being able to concentrate
- withdrawing from other people
- relying on alcohol or drugs
- thinking life’s not worth living
- having trouble sleeping (insomnia).
Some of the physical symptoms of depression include tiredness and appetite loss, but these symptoms can also be caused by having surgery.
A range of effective treatments for depression are available, including counselling and medication. For information and ways to access services, talk to your GP, call Cancer Council on 13 11 20, or go to beyondblue.org.au. Medicare rebates may be available for some treatments, such as seeing a counsellor or psychologist.
For more information see Emotions and Cancer or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
Sexuality, intimacy and infertility
Surgery for cancer can affect your sexuality in physical and emotional ways. The impact of these changes depends on many factors, such as surgery side effects, your self-confidence and whether you have a partner. Although sexual intercourse may not be possible straightaway, closeness and sharing can still be part of your relationship.
If surgery for cancer might cause infertility, your doctor will discuss the possibility of storing eggs, embryos and sperm before surgery.
For more information see Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer and Fertility and Cancer, or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
Changing body image
Having surgery can change the way you think and feel about yourself (your confidence and self-esteem). You may feel less confident about who you are and what you can do. This feeling is common whether your body has changed physically or not.
Give yourself time to adapt to any changes. Try to see yourself as a whole person (body, mind and personality) instead of focusing only on the parts of you that have changed.
For practical suggestions about changes to your body, such as hair loss and weight changes, call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
- After surgery, you will be moved out of the operating theatre to a large area nearby with medical monitoring equipment (recovery room). Some people will go into the high dependency unit (HDU) or intensive care unit (ICU).
- You’ll probably receive pain medicine through tubes or an intravenous drip. There might be some drains to remove waste and fluid from your body.
- While you are on the hospital ward, nurses will monitor your progress and help you with pain control, moving around, eating and drinking, and bathing.
- General anaesthetic can cause side effects such as nausea, chills, dizziness and agitation. These will wear off in time.
- Possible complications after surgery include infection, bleeding, lung problems and weak muscles. Steps will be taken to prevent or manage these.
- You will be officially discharged from hospital when the medical team thinks you are healthy enough to leave.
- When you first get home, you will need to monitor some aspects of your recovery, such as pain management and wound care. See your doctor or go to hospital if you experience major side effects.
- The timing of your first follow-up appointment will depend on the type of surgery you had and your recovery.
- You may need rehabilitation (rehab) to help regain physical strength and get back to your usual daily activities.
- Surgery can affect the way you feel about yourself and your sex life. It may help to talk to a doctor or counsellor.
Expert content reviewers:
Prof Elisabeth Elder, Specialist Breast Surgeon, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute and University of Sydney, NSW; Chanelle Curnuck, Dietitian – Dietetics and Nutrition, Sir Charles Gairdner Osborne Park Health Care Group, WA; Department of Anaesthetics, Perioperative Medicine and Pain Medicine, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Jessica Feeney, Nurse Unit Manager, Breast, Endocrine and Gynaecology, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Rohan Miegel, Senior Physiotherapist – Cancer Care, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; A/Prof Nicholas O’Rourke, University of Queensland and Head of Hepatobiliary Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital, QLD; Lucy Pollerd, Social Worker, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Suzanne Ryan, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Department of General Surgery, Sunshine Coast University Hospital, QLD; Rebecca Yeoh, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Understanding Surgery - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2023 edition). This webpage was last updated in May 2023.