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After surgery

Find out what happens after surgery and what to do to recover.

When you wake up

Depending on what operation you have, you might wake up in the:

  • intensive care unit
  • high dependency recovery unit
  • ward
  • theatre recovery area

These units and wards can be busy and often noisy places. You might find it strange and disorientating. You will feel drowsy because of the anaesthetic and painkillers. 

The staff will check you regularly to see if you need anything. There will be a call bell close by so that you can call for help whenever you need it.

When you wake up you might have:

  • a little clip on your finger (a pulse oximeter) to measure your pulse and blood oxygen levels
  • an oxygen mask on for a while
  • a blood pressure cuff on your arm

The tubes can be a little frightening but it helps to know what they are for. You might have:

  • drips (intravenous infusions) for blood transfusions and fluids until you are eating and drinking again
  • a nasogastric tube to drain fluid from your stomach and to stop you feeling sick
  • a tube into your bladder (catheter) to drain urine and monitor your urine output
  • a urostomy bag if you have had your bladder removed
  • a colostomy bag if you have had part of your bowel removed

You might have one or more drains coming out of any wounds. These include a tube connected to a suction bottle. They stop blood and fluid collecting around the operation site. This helps your wound to heal and helps to reduce the risk of infection.  

The bottles attached to your drains are usually emptied every day. They can come out when no more fluid drains out of them.

You might also have drains coming out of each groin if your lymph nodes have been removed. These might stay in place for about 10 days.  

If you have had a big operation, you will almost certainly have pain for the first week or so. There are many different painkillers you can have.

It’s important to tell your doctor or nurse as soon as you feel any pain. They need your help to find the right type and dose of painkiller for you. Painkillers work best when you take them regularly, so take them as often as you are advised.

Many hospitals use electric pumps for painkillers after surgery. This is called a PCA or patient controlled analgesia. These attach to your drip. You have a hand control with a button to press to give yourself extra painkillers as you need them.

Use this whenever you need to, you can’t overdose because the machine is set to prevent this. Tell your nurse if you need to press the button often. You might need a higher dose in the pump.

For some operations, your anaesthetist may set up a spinal anaesthetic (epidural) to give painkillers into the fluid around your spinal cord. This makes your body numb from the waist down.

You may not be able to eat or drink for a while when you wake up. This depends on the type of operation you have had.

When you're allowed, you can start with sips of water. Gradually the amount you drink can increase. Once you can drink without being sick, your drip and nasogastric tube can come out. You can then start a light diet.

You might be able to eat and drink later the same day if you have had a wide local excision. It will be longer before you can eat properly if your operation has involved you bowel and bladder.

Your surgeon might remove just the area containing the cancer cells if you have an early stage vaginal cancer. With this type of surgery, your wound will be inside your vagina.

You will have a wound in between your legs if your surgeon needs to remove part of the external genital area. For example, if your cancer is in the lower third of your vagina you might need to have the lips of the vagina (the vulva) removed. 

You might have a scar down the centre of your tummy (a vertical scar) if you have the whole of your vagina removed. It might be quite a long scar down the centre of your tummy if you have a radical hysterectomy.

You will have wounds in your groin if you have your lymph nodes removed.

Do ask your surgeon whether you are going to have a scar and what it will look like. Treatment for vaginal cancer is very individual and depends on the exact size and position of the tumour.

Any external wound from the operation will be covered with a dressing when you come round. It will be left covered for a couple of days. Then your nurse will change the dressings and clean the wound.

Any stitches or wound clips stay in for about 10 days. You might have them taken out before you go home. Or you might go home with them still in place.

You then go back to the hospital, or your GP practice, to have your stitches out. Or a district nurse might do this for you at home. Any internal wounds will have stitches that dissolve by themselves.

Getting up and walking is likely to be very difficult at first. Moving about helps you to get better, but you need to start gradually. Your nurses will encourage you to get out of bed and sit in a chair as soon as possible, usually a day or two after surgery. They will help you with any drips and drains.

The physiotherapist might visit you every day after your operation to help you with breathing and leg exercises.

Over the next couple of days, the tubes, bottles and bags will be taken away. Then it will be much easier to get around.

After a few days, you are up and about more. Gradually you will start to feel better.

You might find it easier to have frequent, small meals at first if you have had major abdominal surgery. The hospital dietician can give you help and advice about managing your diet.

The stoma nurse will help you to manage your stoma if you have had a colostomy or urostomy.

After abdominal surgery, you need to rest at home for at least a month after coming out of the hospital. The first outpatient appointment is usually about 6 weeks after the operation date.

Until this time, don't do anything that puts pressure on your abdominal muscles and skin. For example don't:

  • vacuum
  • do any heavy lifting
  • drive

A short gentle walk every day is a good idea. You get some fresh air and you can gradually go further as you get your strength back. Do take it easy at first. Remember however far you walk, you have to cover the same distance to get back home.

Vaginal cancer surgery can have a big impact on your feelings and emotions. You are likely to have times when you feel very down and this is natural.

You can get support from your doctors and nurses, family and friends. You could think about counselling if you would like to talk to someone outside your own friends and family.

There are also other organisations that offer help and support. 

Last reviewed: 
15 May 2018
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and R Hochhauser
    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th Edition)
    L. Dougherty and S. Lister
    Wiley Blackwell, 2011

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