Possible problems after cancer surgery

There is a risk of problems or complications after any operation. The possible problems depend on the type of operation you have.

Many problems are minor but some can be life threatening. Treating them as soon as possible is important.

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. 

Pain

It is natural to have some pain after surgery but this is usually well controlled with painkillers. You need to take painkillers regularly as prescribed to keep the pain under control. If you wait until you get pain before taking the painkillers it can be harder to control it. Let your doctor or nurse know if your pain is not controlled or is getting worse.

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.

Infections

You are at risk of getting an infection after an operation, such as a wound, chest or urine infection. 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 infection.

They include:

  • a high temperature
  • shivering
  • feeling hot and cold
  • feeling generally unwell
  • cough
  • feeling sick
  • swelling or redness around your wound and your wound might feel hot
  • a strong smell or liquid oozing from your wound

Occasionally for an infection in your wound, you may need another operation.

Blood clots

Blood clots (deep vein thrombosis, DVT) are a possible complication of having surgery because you might not move about as much as usual. Clots can block the normal flow of blood through the veins. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have an area in your leg that is swollen, hot, red or sore.

There is a risk that a blood clot can become loose and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs, causing a blockage there (a pulmonary embolism). Symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • coughing up blood
  • feeling dizzy or light headed
If you have any symptoms of a blood clot when you are at home, you should contact a doctor immediately. This might be your emergency GP service. Or going to your nearest accident and emergency department (A&E).

To prevent clots it's important to do the leg exercises that your nurse or physiotherapist taught you. Your nurse might also give you an injection just under the skin to help lower the risk whilst you are in hospital. You might need to carry on having these injections for 4 weeks, even after you go home. This depends on the type of operation you had.

Your nurse might teach you to do these injections yourself before you go home. Or a district nurse might come to your home to do them.

It's important to continue wearing compression stockings if you have been told to by your doctor.

Chest and breathing problems

Chest infections, including pneumonia, can be serious. 

You can lower your risk by:

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

If you get an infection you have antibiotics to treat it. 

Wound problems

Infection can develop in the wound. If you have an infection, the wound area might be red, hot and sore. You might also feel unwell and have a temperature. Let your doctor know as soon as possible. They can give you antibiotics through a drip or as tablets. 

Sometimes blood or tissue fluid collects internally around the operation area and causes swelling. This is called a haematoma or seroma. Any fluid that collects may need to be drained. Your doctor or nurse does this by putting in a needle or drainage tube.

Bruising

You might have bruising around the operation area. This can look alarming but it usually goes away slowly over a few days or weeks.

Lymphoedema

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

  • Principles and practice of oncology (11th edition)
    VT de Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2019

  • Lymphoedema referral and management guidelines
    London Cancer Alliance, 2015

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

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