The first few days after surgery | Cancer Research UK
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The first few days after surgery

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

Find out what to expect for the first few days after your surgery and anaesthetic. There is detailed information below about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Just after your surgery

You are likely to be sleepy just after your operation. How quickly you recover depends on the type of surgery you had and the type and length of the anaesthetic. People vary in how they feel afterwards. Some feel fine but others may feel groggy, cold, sick or a bit confused. 

Immediately after your operation you spend a short time in the recovery area of the operating theatre so the nurses can keep a close check on you. Once they know you are OK you go back to the ward. The nurses there continue to keep a close check on you.

You have a dressing over your wound. After some types of surgery you might have some tubes near your wound to drain any fluid that builds up. You might also have a drip giving you fluids into a vein until you can eat and drink normally. You may also have a tube in your bladder called a catheter until you can get up to pass urine normally.

Pain control

You have painkillers and these usually control pain well. Tell your nurse if you don’t think the painkillers are working well enough. Any pain gradually gets better as your wound heals.

Preventing problems 

Breathing and leg exercises help to prevent chest infections and blood clots. Your nurses or a physiotherapist will teach you how to do the exercises. You might have antibiotics to prevent a wound infection.

Eating and drinking

How soon you can eat and drink again depends on your type of operation. You might be able to eat on the day or you may have to start slowly and build up gradually.

Getting up and about 

It is good to start moving around as soon as possible. This helps you to recover and reduces the chances of problems such as chest infections or blood clots. Most people get up the same day or the next day. As soon as you feel up to it, you can have visitors.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the surgery section

 

 

Just after your surgery

You are likely to be sleepy. Exactly how sleepy you are and how quickly you recover depends on the type of operation, and the type and length of your anaesthetic. People vary in how they feel straight after a general anaesthetic. 

Some people feel fine but others feel

  • groggy
  • cold
  • sick
  • a bit confused
  • sad
  • anxious
  • tearful

When you first go back to the ward the nurses carry on checking you – at first this is every 15 minutes. They gradually check you less often as you recover, so that within a few hours it is every 4 hours. The checks include your blood pressure, pulse, temperature and your wound.

You have a dressing over your wound. You might have some tubes near it to drain any fluid that builds up. 

You have a drip giving you fluids into a vein until you can eat and drink again. You might also have a tube in your bladder called a catheter. This stays in until you can get up to pass urine normally.

 

Pain control

Pain can usually be very well controlled after surgery. Your doctors and nurses give you painkillers by drip or as tablets or liquids if you need them. 

For some operations you might have an injection of anaesthetic into nearby nerves (a nerve block). This can work very well to control pain. You might also have a small pump attached to a drip so that you can give your own pain medicine as you need it.

It is important that pain is well controlled, so do tell your nurse if you don’t think it is working well enough. As well as making you more comfortable, the painkillers also help you to move around and breathe properly, which helps with your recovery. Any pain gradually gets better as your wound heals.

 

Possible problems after surgery

There are some possible problems after any surgery. These include

  • wound infection
  • chest infection
  • blood clots
  • fluid collection around the wound

Your doctors and nurses do their best to prevent you getting these complications. They ask you to help yourself too. 

Getting up and moving around as soon as possible after your operation helps to prevent chest infections and blood clots. A physiotherapist might also teach you breathing exercises to help prevent chest infections. To help prevent blood clots they teach you leg exercises and give you elastic stockings to wear while you are in bed. 

Your nurses might give you an injection just under the skin to minimise the risk of blood clots. After some types of operation, you might carry on having these injections for 4 weeks. Before you go home, your nurse might teach you to do these injections yourself. Or a district nurse might come to your house to do them.

You might have antibiotics to help prevent infection. You may have them through your drip at first. But once you are eating and drinking, you can take them as tablets.

You might also have drainage tubes close to the wound to stop fluid collecting around the operation site. This is important because, as well as being uncomfortable or painful, fluid that doesn't drain away can become infected.

Below is a short video showing breathing and circulation exercises after surgery. Click on the arrow to watch it.

 

 

View a transcript of the video showing breathing and circulation exercises after surgery (opens in new window)

 

Eating and drinking again

When you can eat and drink again depends on the type of operation you had. Most people can drink and then eat on the day of their operation. After some operations, such as bowel surgery, you might not be able to eat until the next day. This is because your bowel takes time to start working again.

When you do begin eating and drinking you might need to start slowly. Your nurses may suggest that you start with sips of water as soon as you are fully awake and then build up gradually. They will tell you when and what you can eat and drink. They might give you a carbohydrate rich drink to give you energy and help your recovery.

 

Getting up and about

How quickly you can get out of bed and move around depends on the type of operation you had. For most operations you get up the same day or the next day. Your nurses and the physiotherapist tell you when you can get up. They help you if you can't move around easily by yourself. 

It is good to get moving as soon as possible. This helps you recover and reduces the chances of other problems, such as a chest infection and blood clots.

 

Seeing people

Seeing people after an operation can be tiring. But as soon as you feel up to it, you can have visitors. 

It might help to tell people beforehand whether you are likely to have a drip or any other tubes so that they know what to expect. This is especially important for children.

 

For more information

Find out about

Types of cancer

Managing diet problems in cancer

Cancer and pain control

Coping with cancer emotionally

Coping with cancer physically

For general information and support

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)

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Updated: 12 April 2016