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Common cancer surgery side effects and how to manage them

The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on September 21, 2021.

If you’re diagnosed with cancer, one treatment option your care team may recommend is surgery to remove cancerous tissue or a tumor. Any type of surgery has benefits, risks and potential side effects, but cancer surgery specifically has its own set of them.

The severity varies for each person, but some of the side effects depend on:

  • Location and type of cancer
  • Type of surgery (invasive or noninvasive)
  • Additional treatments prior to surgery (chemotherapy or radiation)
  • Overall health
  • Pre-surgery symptoms

It’s important to work closely with your care team from the onset of treatment. Ask questions about side effects before, during and after treatment, so that your care team can provide the appropriate recommendations for management.

How long will side effects from cancer surgery last?

Recovery from cancer surgery and its side effects is different for everyone—as wounds heal at different rates, and some operations are more invasive than others. Before you’re discharged, make sure to discuss your current side effects and ask about any other possible side effects.

Once home, monitor yourself for any new, irregular or changing side effects. If you’re concerned, reach out to your care team immediately so they can help manage and relieve the problem or stop it from worsening.

What are the side effects of cancer surgery?

Knowing as much as possible about the different side effects and what to expect may help put you more in control and at ease. There are a few main side effects of cancer surgery.

Pain: Residual pain following the procedure may depend on factors such as the length and location of surgery, the incision size and the amount of tissue removed. This may feel like:

  • Burning sensation
  • Throbbing
  • Stabbing pain (in more severe cases)

Pain usually recedes gradually, but there are ways to manage pain, including taking medications. Your doctor may also recommend mental and emotional therapies such as meditation, relaxation and breathing exercises or one-on-one counseling.

Numbness: Nerves may be affected or cut from certain touch points during the surgery, causing some numbness. Numbness is normally not a lasting problem, though it may become permanent in rare cases. Speak with your surgeon pre-surgery to discuss whether any nerves may be affected with your particular procedure.

Swelling: Inflammation at the site of surgery is normal—and is actually part of the body’s response to heal the wound. To help manage swelling:

  • Ice the area around the incision
  • Elevate the area (if accessible)
  • Limit your sodium intake

Ask your doctor about taking ibuprofen or other over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory medications.

Drainage: You may experience fluid drainage from the incision. Small, short-lasting drainage is common, but if fluid is thicker and smells bad, or there’s redness around the wound, it could mean there’s an infection.

Bleeding and bruising: Wounds from incisions may continue to bleed or bruise post-surgery due to broken blood vessels or tissue damage. Your care team may recommend covering the wound with a clear, dry bandage. If bleeding continues, apply pressure and go to your local emergency room.

Infection: Infections may occur when your body’s immune system is unable to fight off bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that may have been disrupted during surgery. Infections are more common in those with cancer due to lower levels of white blood cells and weakened immune systems. Contact your care team immediately if you experience:

  • Fever, chills or sweating
  • Pain around the mouth, skin and lungs
  • Persistent itching

Treatment may include antibiotics or other medications to reduce the infection and prevent it from occurring again.

Blood clots: Blood clots occur when blood thickens and clumps, which can happen after surgery. This can be a serious complication, so if you’re experiencing pain or a dramatic increase in pain post-surgery, contact your care team immediately.

Loss of appetite: Due to anesthesia administered with surgery, you may experience low appetite or difficulty eating for a few days. Your care team may suggest a specific diet and provide you with adequate fluids to stay hydrated. You should start to regain your appetite shortly after surgery symptoms subside, but if you don’t, alert your care team. For surgery in the stomach, abdomen, mouth, throat or colon, you may also experience gas, bloating or cramping.

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