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The first few days after surgery

Knowing what to expect for the first few days after your surgery and anaesthetic can make it feel less frightening. 

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 and 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, heart rate, temperature, breathing rate 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 wee (pass urine) normally.

Pain control

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

You might have an injection of anaesthetic into nearby nerves (a nerve block) for some operations. 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. This is called patient controlled analgesia (PCA).

It's 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. Pain will gradually get better as your wound heals.

Possible problems after surgery

There are some possible problems after any surgery. Your doctors and nurses do their best to prevent you getting these complications. They ask you to help yourself too. Problems may include:

Wound infection

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.

Chest infection

Getting up and moving around as soon as possible after your operation helps to prevent chest infections. A physiotherapist or nurse might also teach you breathing exercises to help. 

Blood clots

Getting up and moving around as soon as possible after your operation helps prevent blood clots. A physiotherapist or nurse might also teach you leg exercises and give you compression stockings to wear while you are in bed.

Your nurse might give you an injection just under the skin to lower 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.

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 nurse 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'll help you if you can't move around easily by yourself. 

It's 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.

Your cancer type

Surgery is different for each cancer type. You can find more detailed information about what happens during and after surgery on our cancer type pages.

For support and information about surgery, you can call the Cancer Research UK information nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
20 Mar 2019
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