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After surgery

Find out what to expect when you wake up from your operation, and what happens afterwards.

When you wake up after your operation

After a big operation, you wake up in the intensive care unit or a high dependency recovery unit. You usually move back to the ward within a day or so.

In intensive care you have one to one nursing care. In the high dependency unit you have very close nursing care. Your surgeon and anaesthetist also keep an eye on your progress.

These units are busy and often noisy places that some people find strange and disorientating. You'll feel drowsy because of the anaesthetic and painkillers.

Drips and drains

To start with you might have a drip (intravenous infusion) into your arm until you are eating and drinking. 

When you wake up, you might have several different tubes in place. This can be a bit frightening. But it helps to know what they are all for. You might have:

  • one or more thin tubes called wound drains in the operation area, to drain any fluid or blood that collects
  • a tube down your nose into your stomach (nasogastric tube) to drain fluid and stop you feeling sick
  • a bag or tube draining urine from your new stoma, if you have one
  • a tube going into your back (epidural) or into the muscle near the wound to give painkillers

You have a tube (catheter) into the new bladder to drain urine. Your nurse flushes the new bladder regularly to get rid of blood clots.

Your nurse checks how much urine your new stoma is draining, if you have one. Your nurse can gently flush the stoma out with water if it is blocked.


It’s normal to have pain for the first week or so. Your doctor and nurses give you painkillers.  

Tell your doctor or nurse as soon as you feel any pain. They need your help to find the right type and dose of painkiller for you. Painkillers work best when you take them regularly.

Immediately after surgery you might have painkillers through a drip into the bloodstream that you control. This is called patient controlled analgesia (PCA).

Or you might have painkillers through a small thin tube that is put into your back. This tube is connected to a pump that gives you a constant dose of painkiller. This is called an epidural.

You get painkillers to take home. Follow the instructions your nurse gives you about how often and when to take them. Contact your nurse or doctor if you still have pain or if it gets worse.

Eating and drinking

Your nurse starts offering you sips of water within a few hours. If you can cope with these, you can gradually drink more and then try eating a light diet.

Gradually, you get back to normal over a few days. Your nurse might give you high protein, high calorie drinks to help maintain your nutrition. Once you are drinking plenty of fluids, your nurse takes your drip out.

Moving around

Once you have recovered a little from the anaesthetic, the nurses and physiotherapists help you to move around as soon as possible.

Even when you are still in bed, they help you to do deep breathing and leg exercises. These help stop you getting a chest infection or blood clots in your legs.

Possible ​side effects

Passing urine

After surgery to have your bladder removed, you normally pass urine in a different way. How you do this depends on the surgery you have had. 

Urine leakage

Some people leak some urine after a bladder reconstruction, particularly at night. Your surgeon and specialist nurse talk to you about how common this is, whether it is likely in your case and what to do about it if it happens.

Sex life and fertility

Men might not be able to get an erection after surgery. The nerves that control erection can be damaged during the operation. Sometimes your surgeon mght be able to preserve these nerves so you can still get an erection.

After having your prostate gland removed during surgery, you can no longer father a child. Even if you can get an erection, you cannot ejaculate as you did before. 

Women might have to have have their vagina shortened when their bladder is removed. Your surgeon tries to avoid this as far as possible. You might also have your womb removed during surgery. This means you cannot have children.

Coping after surgery for bladder cancer can be difficult. You can call the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, to talk things through.

Follow up

After having surgery, you have regular check ups to see how you are recovering.

Last reviewed: 
13 May 2014
  • Principles and practice of oncology (10th edition)

    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg

    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2008

  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures, 9th edition
    L Dougherty and S Lister (Editors)
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

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