After your cancer operation

It might help to know what to expect when you wake up after surgery. This will depend on what operation you have. Your doctor or nurse will tell you more about what to expect.  

How long it takes to recover depends on the type of surgery you have. It also depends on your general health.

After an anaesthetic

The anaesthetic stops you from feeling anything, especially pain. There are different types of anaesthetic.

  • A local anaesthetic numbs a small part of your body. 
  • A regional anaesthetic numbs a large area or part of your body. For example, an injection into your spine (epidural) which numbs your lower body.
  • A general anaesthetic make you unconscious, so you aren't aware of anything during the operation.

With local and regional anaesthetics, you may have a drug to help you relax as well as the injection to numb the area. This is called sedation. You are awake during the operation but might feel sleepy.

After a local anaesthetic

You might be able to go home soon after surgery if you only had a local anaesthetic. You need to arrange a friend or relative to take you home if you also had sedation to make you drowsy.

Your nurse gives you any instructions you need to follow before you go. They tell you who to contact if you have any problems.

After a regional or general anaesthetic

You go from the operating room to the recovery room if you had an injection to numb a larger area of your body (regional anaesthetic) or a general anaesthetic. You stay in the recovery room until you are well enough to go back to the ward.

While you are in the recovery area the nurses might regularly check:

  • your blood pressure, pulse and breathing rate
  • your wound for any bleeding
  • that you are comfortable, and any pain is under control
  • how much fluid is draining from your wound drains
  • how much urine is draining if you have a catheter
  • that any drips into the bloodstream are running at the right rate

Once you have recovered enough from the anaesthetic you go back to the ward. It's quite common for people not to remember being in the recovery area.

High dependency care

Some people who have a big operation and need more regular checks go to a high dependency unit (HDU) or intensive care unit (ICU). Your doctor will tell you before the operation. You go back to a regular ward once you have recovered enough.

How will I feel when I wake up after a general anaesthetic?

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.


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.

Tubes and drains

When you wake up, you might have several tubes in you. This will depend on what surgery you had. You don't always need all of these drips and tubes.  

After some operations you might have:

  • drips to give you blood transfusions and fluids 
  • wound drains to drain any blood or fluid
  • a tube into your bladder (catheter) to measure how much urine you pass
  • a fine tube into your back that goes into your spinal fluid (epidural) to help relieve pain
  • a tube down your nose into your stomach (nasogastric tube) to drain bile and stop you feeling sick

You may also have an oxygen mask on.

Electronic pumps may control any medicines you have through your drip.

Your wound

You have dressings over your wounds. The position and number of wounds you have depend on what type of surgery you have.

To close your wound you might have stitches or clips. The stitches might be dissolvable and the surgeon might also use steristrips. 

Before you go home the nurse gives you information about how to care for the wound.

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.

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.

Going home

How long you need to stay in hospital depends on the type of operation you had and how quickly you recover.

You need to give yourself time to get over the surgery. You might find that you tire easily and need to rest during the day at first. It can take several weeks to a few months to fully recover from a major operation.

If you have a dressing over your wound, your ward nurse may arrange for a district nurse to come to your home to change it. Or you might be able to go to the GP surgery. Your nurse tells you if you need to have any stitches or clips taken out. They might take them out at the hospital or GP surgery.

Your nurse also gives you phone numbers of who to contact if you have any problems at home.

Questions to ask

Before you leave hospital the doctors and nurses tell you what to expect. 

You might want to ask the following questions:

  • Does the wound dressing need to be changed and who will do it?
  • Do I need to have stitches or clips taken out or do they dissolve?
  • Can I have a bath or shower?
  • Can I eat a normal diet?
  • What medicines do I need to take?
  • Do I need painkillers?
  • How active can I be – for example can I lift, do housework, go to the gym?
  • Are there any exercises I need to do?
  • When can I start driving again?
  • When can I go back to work?
  • When can I have sex again?
  • When do I need to come back for a check up?
  • Who can I contact if I have a problem?

Surgery for 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.
  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures, 10th edition 
    S Lister and others (Editors)
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2020

  • Royal College of Anaesthetists website
    Accessed March 2019

  • Perioperative care in adults [NG180]
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2020

Last reviewed: 
19 May 2022
Next review due: 
19 May 2025

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