After surgery for rectal cancer

After a big operation, you might wake up in the intensive care unit (ICU) or high dependency unit (HDU). You usually move back to the ward in a day or so. 

In ICU you have one to one nursing care. And 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 might feel drowsy because of the anaesthetic and painkillers. 

Tubes and drains

When you wake up, you'll have several tubes in you. This can be frightening, so it helps to know what they're for. 

You are likely to have a drip into your arm (intravenous infusion) to give you fluids until you are eating and drinking again. You might also have:

  • a tube into your bladder (catheter) to drain urine
  • a fine tube (called a wound drain) near the wound to drain away any fluid that collects and help it to heal
  • a tube down your nose into your stomach (nasogastric tube) for 24 hours, to drain fluids and stop you feeling sick

You may also have an oxygen mask on. 

Electronic pumps may control any medicines you have through your drip. 


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

Tell your doctor or nurse as soon as you feel 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 can have painkillers through either:

  • a drip into your bloodstream that you control (PCA or patient controlled analgesia) 
  • small thin tube put into your back and connected to a pump that gives you a constant dose of painkiller (epidural) 

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

Eating and drinking

Immediately after surgery you cannot eat or drink. You have fluids through a drip. When you start to drink again, begin with sips of water. This is usually within 24 to 48 hours. 

You gradually build up what you drink and eat. Most people are able to eat small amounts within a few days of the operation, but it depends on your type of surgery. 

Some people need a feeding tube to help maintain their nutrition. The tube can go into the small bowel through your nose, or into a vein (drip). 

You see the dietitian most days while you are in hospital. You can contact them once you get home if you have any problems. 

Getting up

Your nurses and physiotherapists will help you to move around as soon as possible. They'll check you're doing your breathing and leg exercises. This helps you recover. 

You might be sitting in a chair within 12 hours of your operation. The day after, you might be walking around your bed. And within a few days you'll be able to walk along the hospital corridor. 

Making progress

During the first few days after your operation you'll start to feel better. The drips and drains come out, you start eating and you can move about more easily.

You'll begin to feel like you are making progress. Most people go home about a week after surgery. 

Your wound

You have dressings over your wounds. You have 2 wounds if you have open surgery. You may have 3 smaller wounds if you had keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery. After a couple of days your nurse changes the dressings and cleans your wounds. 

Most hospitals use stiches that dissolve. These do not need removing. Otherwise your stiches stay in for at least 10 days

Your doctor or nurse will tell you when the stitches need to come out. The nurse might remove them before you go home. Or you might go home with the stitches in and a nurse will take them out:

Before you go home the nurse gives you information about how to care for your wound. If you have a stoma (ileostomy or colostomy) the nurse will show you how to care for your stoma. 

Going home

You'll need help when you first go home. The dietitian will talk to you and your family about what to eat. It can take some time to find what works for you. 

You're likely to feel very tired for several weeks and sometimes months after your surgery. It helps to do more every day. Try: 

  • sitting for less time each day 
  • walking around the house a bit more each day
  • building up to walking outside 

What you can do depends on how fit you were before surgery and any problems you have afterwards. Talk to your physiotherapist or your doctor if you're unsure about what you should be doing. 

Contact your doctor or specialist nurse if you have any problems or symptoms you are unsure about. 

Follow up appointments

You'll have follow up appointments to check your recovery and sort out any problems. They're also your opportunity to raise any concerns you have about your progress. 

Problems after surgery

There is a risk of problems or complications after any operation. Possible problems after bowel cancer surgery include a leak where the surgeon has joined the ends of your colon together, or your bowel not working properly. Other possible problems include infection, blood clots and bleeding. 

Last reviewed: 
11 Feb 2022
Next review due: 
11 Feb 2025
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    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2019

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

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

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