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Problems after surgery

Find out about the possible complications after your surgery.

There is a risk of problems or complications after any operation. Around half of all people who have surgery have a problem or complication. Many problems are minor but some can be life threatening.

Treating them as soon as possible is important.

Weakness and lacking in strength

Surgery for oesophageal cancer is a major operation.

Feeling tired and weak

Most people feel weak and lack strength for some time afterwards. How long this lasts varies.

Tell your doctor or nurse if the weakness continues for more than a few weeks. They can suggest things to help, such as physiotherapy.

Eating problems

Most people have some problems eating after surgery. This can cause weight loss. Eating small amounts regularly is important.

You might also have tummy (abdominal) discomfort after certain foods and with diarrhoea. The combination of these symptoms is called dumping syndrome.

Tell your dietitian about any problems you have with eating.

Infections

You will have antibiotics to reduce the risk of developing an infection after surgery. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any symptoms of an infection. They include:

  • feeling generally unwell
  • shivering
  • feeling hot and cold
  • feeling sick
  • swelling or redness around your wound

Leaks

Leaks can happen where the surgeon joins the oesophagus to the stomach or the bowel. This is called an anastomotic leak. This is a serious problem and you need to have treatment straight away.

Treatment includes:

  • stopping eating and drinking
  • antibiotics
  • draining the leak
  • tube feeding

You will have endoscopies and scans to check that it is healing. You might need more surgery to repair the leak if the other treatments don’t work. You need to stay in hospital longer if you have a leak.

Around 7 out of 100 people (7%) have a leak after this surgery. This is most likely to happen in the first week after surgery. It is extremely rare for people to have a leak after they have gone home.

Contact your doctor if you have any breathlessness or severe chest pain.

Chest and breathing problems

Chest infections, including pneumonia, can be serious. Treatment is antibiotics.

You can lower your risk by:

  • stopping smoking before your operation
  • getting up and moving as soon as possible after your operation
  • doing the breathing exercises your physiotherapist teaches you

Heart problems

Some people have heart problems after this surgery. This can cause problems with other organs, including your kidneys. You’ll have regular blood tests to check how well your heart and kidneys work.  

Voice changes

You may have voice changes after your operation, including hoarseness. This happens if the nerve that connects to the voicebox is damaged during your operation.

This is usually temporary because of bruising. More rarely it can be permanent. Even more rarely people need surgery to repair their vocal cords.

Slow emptying of your stomach and reflux

Surgery can cause a problem with the contents of the stomach going back into the oesophagus (reflux).

Reflux can cause symptoms such as heartburn. Treatment includes

  • antacids
  • medicines that help to move food through the stomach and bowel

Thoracic duct or chyle leak

The thoracic duct is a tube close to the oesophagus. It is part of the lymphatic system. During your operation, your surgeon may divide it. Rarely, it leaks after your operation. This is most likely to happen in the first week after surgery.

The main symptom is more fluid draining into your chest drain than your doctor would expect.

Rarer symptoms include pain and feeling breathless.

Treatment is to drain the fluid. You might need to have another tube put into the area where the fluid is collecting. You might need to have an operation to repair it if the duct doesn’t repair itself.

Contact your doctor if you have any symptoms.

Last reviewed: 
06 Jul 2016
  • Guidelines for the management of oesophageal and gastric cancer
    British Society of Gastroenterology (BSG), 2011.

  • Management of oesophageal and gastric cancer
    Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN). June 2006.

  • Minimally invasive oesophagectomy
    The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). September 2011.

  • National Oesophago-Gastric Cancer Audit 2013
    Health and Social Care Information Centre

  • Risk factors for complications after esophageal cancer resection: a prospective population-based study in Sweden.
    P Viklund and others. Ann Surg. 2006 Feb;243(2):204-11.

  • Current management of oesophageal cancer. Naufal Rashid and others.
    British Journal of Medical Practitioners. 2015;8(1):a804  

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