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Possible long term problems of surgery

Not everyone has long term problems after surgery.

Before your operation your surgeon explains any possible problems, both short and longer term. They also explain the benefits of having the surgery. This helps you and your surgeon work out whether the benefits outweigh the possible risks. The possible problems depend on the type of operation you have.


Pain usually goes a few weeks after surgery, but you might need to carry on taking painkillers for longer. 

Some people have long term pain for some months after an operation. This most often happens with chest surgery (thoracotomy) or removal of a breast (mastectomy). Continuing pain after surgery is called postoperative pain syndrome.

Some people have pain when they have had a limb (arm or leg) removed. Although the limb has gone, the person still feels pain in the area where the limb was. This is called phantom pain.

Ask your doctor or nurse to refer you to a pain specialist if you have pain for longer than expected after an operation or if the pain is severe. If pain is not well controlled soon after the operation, it might become more difficult to control it in the future.


Lymphoedema is swelling caused by a build up of fluid in part of the body. It usually happens in an arm or leg but can happen in other areas, such as the chest or head and neck. It affects areas where lymph nodes have been damaged or removed. 

The lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system. This is a network of thin tubes and nodes (glands) in the body that filters lymph fluid and fights infection.

Most people won't get lymphoedema. But if you notice swelling in your hands or feet after surgery to the armpit or groin, you should tell your doctor. 

Once lymphoedema has happened, it can't be got rid of completely. But if caught early it can be treated and controlled very well.

Your cancer type

Surgery is different for each cancer type. You can find more detailed information about what happens after surgery and possible long term problems 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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