Having your cervical cancer operation
This page is about having an operation for cervical cancer. You can find information about
Having your cervical cancer operation
When you go into hospital for your surgery, you will see your anaesthetist and one or more of the doctors involved in your care. They will explain your operation.
When you wake up after a hysterectomy or other major operation for cervical cancer you will have a drip into your arm to give you fluids. You will have a tube (catheter) to drain your urine, and a tube to drain your wound. Because you will not be able to move around freely, you will have injections to thin your blood and help prevent clots. You will also have elastic stockings to wear to help the blood flow in your legs.
You may well have pain for the first week or so. But there are many different painkillers you can have. It is important to 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.
Your wound will be covered up for a couple of days. Any wound drains will stay in until they stop draining fluid. They usually come out about 2 to 7 days after the operation. Any stitches or clips will stay in for at least 7 to 10 days. Your nurse may take them out before you go home or they will arrange for a district nurse to remove them once you're home. Many hospitals use stitches that gradually dissolve, so you don't need to have them taken out. In this case, you may have sticky strips (steristrips) over the wound.
After major abdominal surgery, you will need to rest at home for at least a month after you come out of hospital. You will usually have a check up after 6 weeks. Until then you must not drive or do heavy housework or carrying.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating cervical cancer section.
Your surgeon will need to be sure you are fit for your operation. You may have had some of these general tests when your cancer was being diagnosed. If so, you won't need to have them again. You will probably have
- Chest X-ray
- Blood tests
- Urine test
- Heart trace (ECG)
- CT or MRI scan
These tests are to check your general health before your operation and to get as much information about the cancer in advance. Some hospitals do these tests when you are an outpatient. Some do them when you get to the hospital the night before your operation.
When you go into hospital for your surgery, you will see your anaesthetist, one of the junior doctors working for your surgeon and a nurse who will be involved in your care. They will ask you to sign a consent form for the operation. The doctor should explain the form fully to you before you sign it. If you are having very major surgery, you may see more than one doctor, as other specialist surgeons may be involved in your care. For example, if you are going to have your bladder removed, a urologist will be working with your gynaecologist.
If you are having very major surgery, which could involve the removal of your bladder or rectum, a member of the stoma care team will come to see you before your operation. A stoma is an opening in the body. A stoma is made if the rectum or bladder is removed. The stoma is covered with a bag that collects your urine or bowel motions. The stoma care team is a team of nurses who can help you to manage if you need this type of surgery. They will go through with you what will happen and what you will have to do after the operation. If you agree, they may be able to introduce you to someone who has already had this type of surgery and can help to explain to you what it will involve and what it is like coping with this type of treatment. The stoma nurse will visit you after your operation too and help you to learn to look after your stoma and bag.
You may also be seen by a nurse who specialises in caring for people with cancer. And a nurse or physiotherapist will talk to you about the breathing and leg exercises that you will need to do after surgery to prevent chest infections or blood clots in the legs when you are in bed.
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)
Before your operation, you may be asked to follow a diet sheet for a few days and take quite strong laxatives to make sure the bowel is as clean as possible. This helps to lessen the risk of infection after surgery and make the operation easier. You may also need to have an enema when you get to hospital. Your nurse may need to shave your pubic hair to make sure the operation site is as clean as possible.
You will not be able to eat or drink anything for six hours before your anaesthetic. It is very important to stick to this. If you don't your operation may have to be postponed because there is a risk that you may be sick (vomit) under anaesthetic.
When you wake up after your operation you will have a few tubes in place. You will have
- A drip (intravenous infusion) into your arm to give you fluids until you are eating and drinking again
- A tube (catheter) into your bladder to drain your urine
- One or more fine tubes (wound drains) into your abdomen to drain away any fluid that collects. This helps the wound to heal
- You may have a very fine tube into your spine (an epidural), carrying painkillers to control your pain after the surgery
You will not be able to eat or drink much at first. But as soon as you are fully awake you will be able to wet your mouth with sips of water. Your doctor will listen to your abdomen with a stethoscope to see if your bowel is working normally (sometimes the bowel stops working for a while after abdominal surgery). As soon as it is, you will be able to increase the amount you are drinking and then progress to something light to eat. You should be eating and drinking normally again within a couple of days at the most.
Because you will not be able to move around freely, you will have daily injections of a drug called heparin, to thin your blood and help prevent clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis or DVT) or lung (pulmonary embolism or PE). You will also have elastic stockings to wear. These help the blood to flow back to the heart (normally the movement of the leg muscles does this).
As with hysterectomy, you will wake up with quite a few tubes in place. You may have
- A drip to give you fluids
- A tube into a blood vessel in your neck, that your doctor uses to give you fluids and to measure your blood pressure
- Wound drains coming out of your abdomen and connected to drainage bottles or bags
- A catheter to drain your urine (unless your bladder has been removed)
- A urostomy tube, that goes into an opening on your abdomen to drain your urine (if you have had your bladder removed)
- A very fine tube into your spine (an epidural), carrying painkillers to control your pain after the surgery
After very major surgery, you will probably wake up in the intensive care unit or surgical high dependency unit. This is routine and nothing to worry about. You are in one of these wards because they have a higher number of nurses to patients and so are able to give you all the attention you need for the first few hours. If your condition is stable, your doctor will arrange for you to go back to the regular ward about 36 to 48 hours after your surgery finished.
There is more about recovering from an operation to remove the bladder in our section on surgery for bladder cancer and about colostomy surgery in the bowel cancer section. Remember this information is not in the cervical cancer section, so you'll need to use the back button at the top left of your screen to get back to information about cervical cancer.
You may have pain for the first week or so. But there are many different painkillers you can have. It is important to 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.
When you first wake up, you may have a pump attached to your drip that contains painkillers. You may have a hand control connected to the pump that has a button you can press. You can use this to give yourself extra painkillers as you need them. You can't overdose - the machine is set to prevent that. Do tell your nurse if you need to press the button very often. You may need a higher dose in the pump.
You may have painkillers into the spine (epidural analgesia) for the first day or so after surgery. This is the same type of pain control that is sometimes used for labour pains. These painkillers work very well for controlling pain after an operation. They don't make you drowsy and don't make you feel sick, unlike some other strong painkillers. They do numb the legs, but this doesn't matter when you are in bed for a couple of days after a major operation. You may come back from the theatre with the epidural all set up. You'll have a very fine tube taped to your back. This connects to a pump, which gives you a continuous dose of painkiller into the space around the nerves in your back.
Whatever method of pain control you are having, tell your nurse if you are in pain. You may need a different type of painkiller, or you may need a higher dose. We have a whole other section on pain and pain control.
If you have had a hysterectomy, you are most likely to have a wound that runs vertically, up and down your lower tummy (abdomen). This is called a mid line incision. It allows the surgeon good access to all parts of the abdomen, so they can check the tissues around the womb thoroughly. Or, you may have a wound that runs across your lower abdomen, from right to left - a transverse incision. If you are overweight, this may be easier for the surgeon and will heal more easily. If you've had keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery you may have about 5 smaller wounds on your abdomen rather than one large wound. If you've had other surgery, the wound site will vary according to what you've had done.
Your wound will be covered up when you come round from the operation. It will be left covered for a couple of days. Then your nurse will change the dressing and clean the wound. The wound drains will stay in until they stop draining fluid. Your nurse will change the bottles attached to them every day. Wound drains usually come out about 2 to 7 days after the operation. Taking them out is most often very straightforward. Your nurse will snip the stitch holding the drain in and then pull it out smoothly. This may feel quite odd, and you may feel a twinge, but it doesn't usually hurt any more than that.
Your stitches or clips will stay in for at least 7 to 10 days. Your nurse may take them out before you go home. But if they are still in, you can either have an appointment to go back and have them taken out at the hospital, or a district nurse can go to your home to remove them. Many hospitals use stitches that gradually dissolve, so you don't need to have them taken out. If you have these, you may have sticky strips (steristrips) over the wound.
This may seem impossible at first. Moving about helps you to get better, but you will usually need to start gradually. Your physiotherapist will visit every day after your operation to help with your breathing and leg exercises. Your nurses will also remind you to do the exercises. The physio can be very helpful for teaching you how to get out of bed without it hurting too much.
Your nurses will encourage you to get out of bed and sit in a chair as soon as possible. Once all the drips and drains are out it will be much easier to get around. Then you will really feel that you are making progress.
Wind pain is quite common after hysterectomy. This is a colicky type of pain, caused by your gut shutting down for a while. Moving around as early as possible helps to prevent this. It also helps to lower the risk of more serious complications such as blood clots in the legs (DVT).
After this type of abdominal surgery, you will need to rest at home for at least a month after you come out of hospital. Your first outpatient appointment is usually arranged for about 6 weeks after the date of your surgery. Until this time, you will not be able to
- Do heavy housework, such as vacuuming
- Carry heavy bags of shopping or washing
This is because all these activities put pressure on your abdominal muscles and skin. These need time to heal and it will take longer to get over your operation if you put too much strain on the area. You will gradually be able to increase the amount you can do. A short walk every day is a good idea. You will get a bit of fresh air and you can gradually go further as you regain your strength. Do take it easy at first though. Remember that however far you walk, you'll have to cover the same distance again to get back home!
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