Problems after surgery

There is a risk of problems or complications after any operation. Many problems are minor but some can be serious. Treating them as soon as possible is important. Your doctor will go through all the possible complications of your operation before you sign the consent form.

Your nurse will give you the phone numbers of who to contact if you have any problems when you are at home.

Infections

You are at risk of getting an infection after an operation, such as a wound, chest or urine infection. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any symptoms of infection.

They include:

  • a high temperature
  • shivering
  • feeling hot and cold
  • feeling generally unwell
  • cough
  • feeling sick
  • swelling or redness around your wound

Your doctor can give you antibiotics. Occasionally for an infection in your wound or pelvis, you may need another operation.

Bleeding in your pelvis or abdomen

You'll have some blood loss during your operation. Sometimes you may need a blood transfusion for this.

There is a small risk of internal bleeding after the operation. This is rare. You may need a second operation if this happens.

Your nurse will check you regularly after surgery for signs of blood loss.

Blood clots

After surgery, you're at risk of blood clots developing in your pelvis or legs. This could lead to a blood clot in your lungs.

To prevent blood clots, your nurses get you up as soon as possible after your operation, and encourage you to move around or do your leg exercises.

Also, during and after your operation, you wear special stockings (called anti embolism stockings or TEDS). And after your operation you usually have injections to thin your blood. You may have the injections for up to 4 weeks after surgery.

Tell your doctor straight away or go to A&E if you:

  • have a painful, red, swollen leg, which may feel warm to touch
  • are short of breath
  • have pain in your chest or upper back
  • cough up blood

Damage to other organs in the pelvis or abdomen

With any surgery to the pelvis or abdomen, there is a risk of damaging parts of the body that aren’t being removed such as the bladder, the tubes that take urine to the bladder (the ureters), or the bowel.

Your surgeon usually notices if a problem develops during the operation and can repair it. Occasionally you may need a second operation.

Problems with healing

Your wound might heal slower than expected. This might be due to infection or because of the cancer treatments you’ve had in the past.

Fluid leaking in the abdomen

Rarely fluid may leak from the area where the surgeon has joined two tissues together (anastomosis), such as in the bowel. You may feel unwell and have a high temperature. You may also have severe pain in your abdomen.

You might need antibiotics, fluids through a drip, and a drain to get rid of the fluid. You may need a second operation.

Fistula

A fistula means an opening. After an operation an abnormal connection or path can develop between two areas of the body. Depending on where in the body it is, this means fluid may flow to another area of the body. For example if one develops in the bladder urine can leak out to another part of the body.

After pelvic exenteration there is a risk of developing a fistula in your pelvis or abdomen, such as from your bladder or part of the bowel.

To get rid of the fistula your doctor may put in a tube to drain it. You also have medicines to control any swelling (inflammation). The tube stays in until the fistula dries up. The fistula may then heal on its own. Sometimes you may need another operation to repair the fistula.

Scar tissue in the pelvis or abdomen

After any surgery to your pelvis or abdomen scar tissue (adhesions) can develop. This usually doesn’t cause any problems.

But scar tissue can sometimes cause pain, or part of your bowel may stick together and cause a blockage (obstruction).  You might need an operation for this.

Numbness at the top of legs

There are nerves in the pelvis that are very close to where you have surgery. Some of the nerves may be damaged during the operation. This can cause numbness or tingling at the top of your legs or inside your thighs. This normally gets better in 6 to 12 months.

Swelling in your legs

If you have lymph nodes taken away as part of your operation, the flow of lymphatic fluid around your body can be disrupted. In some women, the fluid may build up in one or both legs, or rarely in the genital area.

This swelling is called lymphoedema. It can develop any time after surgery. Your nurse will give you information about how to reduce the risk of this happening.

Tell your nurse or doctor if you notice any swelling.

Last reviewed: 
06 May 2020
Next review due: 
06 May 2023
  • Exenteration for gynecologic cancer
    UpToDate website, accessed October 2017

  • Cervical cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up
    C Marth and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2017. Volume 28, Supplement 4

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

Related links