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What happens after surgery

Find out how you’ll feel after your surgery, when you can go home, and about follow up appointments.

When you wake up

You wake up in the recovery area next to the operating theatres.

At first you’ll be wearing a mask or have small tubes into your nose (nasal cannulae) to give you oxygen. You might feel dizzy and sluggish to begin with.

You have a blood pressure cuff on your arm and a little clip on your finger to measure your pulse and oxygen level.

Once you are more awake, your nurse will take you back to the ward. They will measure your blood pressure and check your dressings regularly.

Your wound

At first you might have a pad type dressing over the wound or a clear sticky dressing.

Some surgeons use a waterproof dressing that stays in place until you go back to the hospital for your first outpatient appointment. Others prefer to have a look at the wound after a day or so.

Some surgeons use stitches that dissolve slowly during the couple of weeks after your operation. So you don’t need to have the stitches taken out. Or you might have stitches that need to come out after about 7 to 10 days. You usually go back to the outpatient clinic for the nurse to do this.

Most people find that their wounds take about 2 to 3 weeks to heal. The area will be bruised and swollen at first.

Before you go home your nurse gives you information about how to care for the wound and who to contact if you have any problems.

Tubes and drains

When you wake up, you might have some tubes going into your body.

You may have:

  • a drip (intravenous infusion) to give you blood transfusions or fluids until you are eating and drinking again
  • wound drains to stop blood and fluid collecting around the area
  • a tube into your bladder to collect urine, if you’ve had a longer operation such as breast reconstruction

If you have wound drains, they stay in until they stop draining fluid. This is usually about 2 to 5 days after your operation.

You can go home with a drain still in. Your nurse will give you written instructions on how to take care of it. A district nurse will come to your home to check it. Or you might need to go back to the hospital every few days.


It’s normal to have pain for the first week or so. Your doctors and nurses will give you painkillers. Tell them 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 PCA or patient controlled analgesia.

Your surgeon might put a long acting local anaesthetic into the wound while you are still in theatre. This can help to control pain for a long time afterwards.

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

Eating and drinking

You’ll drink sips of water to begin with. If you manage this, you can then move on to other drinks such as tea.

Your nurse will remove your drip once you are drinking well without feeling or being sick.

You can start eating when you feel up to it. This is often within a few hours of your operation. It can be helpful to have plain, bland foods at first. Strongly flavoured foods are more likely to make you feel sick.

Getting up

Your nurses will help you to get up as soon as possible after surgery. You might feel a bit dizzy at first. Later the same day or the morning after the operation, you are usually walking around by yourself. But you will feel tired.

It might take a bit longer if you have had breast reconstruction, especially if you had some tissue taken from your tummy (abdomen). 

You are less likely to get a chest infection or a blood clot if you are moving around.

Your nurse or physiotherapist will help you to begin your arm and shoulder exercises. Make sure you have had painkillers before you start trying to do them.

After breast cancer surgery, you can wear a comfortable non-underwired bra. You can wear this at night to help support your breast.

If you’ve had a mastectomy without reconstruction, your nurse will give you a lightweight, artificial breast shape (prosthesis) that you can wear inside your bra.

Making progress

During the first few days after your operation you’ll start to feel better and less sore. You might find things slightly easier once your wound drain is out.

Depending on the type of operation, many people go home the same day as their operation or the day after. If you’ve had breast reconstruction, you are likely to be in hospital for a few days.

Going home

When you get home, you need to take things gently at first. You might feel very tired, so have plenty of rest and try to eat a well balanced diet.

Don't lift or carry anything heavy, or drive, while your scars heal up. After a wide local excision this is likely to be after about 2 weeks. After mastectomy it might take longer.

Check with your surgeon or breast care nurse when it is okay to do heavier work (such as vacuuming or shopping) with your affected arm. But do carry on with your arm exercises and some light exercise. It will help you to get better more quickly. 

What you can manage to do will vary, depending on how much surgery you've had. Some people find even filling a kettle too heavy at first. The main thing is to take it carefully and stop if you feel any strain.

You are likely to feel emotional for a while after having your operation. Talk to your partner, friends or relatives about how you feel. Your breast care nurse will also help support you.

Follow up appointments

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

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.