What to expect after surgery for bowel cancer
This is a general overview of what to expect. The process varies from hospital to hospital, and everyone will respond to surgery differently.
Learn more about:
- Your recovery time after the operation will depend on your age, the type of surgery you had and your general health.
- You will probably be in hospital for 4–7 days, but it can take 2–3 months to fully recover.
- You will have to wear compression stockings while you are in hospital to help the blood in your legs to circulate.
- You will also be given a daily injection of a blood thinner to reduce the risk of developing blood clots.
- Some people also wear a special cuff that applies intermittent pressure to the legs.
- Some people may have to wear the stockings and have the injections for a couple of weeks after the surgery.
- You will have some pain and discomfort for several days after surgery, but you will be given pain-relieving medicines to manage this.
- Pain relief may be given in various ways:
- by an injection near your spinal column (epidural or spinal anaesthetic)
- through a drip which you can control with a button (PCA – patient controlled analgesia)
- as pills or tablets
- through little tubes giving local anaesthetic near your wound (TAP block catheters).
- Let your doctor or nurse know if you are in pain so they can adjust the medicines to make you as comfortable as possible. Do not wait until the pain is severe.
- You will be given fluids through a drip (also called an intravenous or IV infusion) until you can start eating and drinking again. You may need a drip for a few days.
- You may also have other tubes – from your bladder to drain urine (catheter) or from your abdomen to drain fluid from around the surgical area.
- In most centres, you will be given water to drink a few hours after the surgery and you will usually start on solid foods the day after the surgery (or even on the day of the surgery if you feel well). You may also be given nutritional supplements to drink.
- In some centres, you will not have anything to eat or drink for several days after the surgery.
- Your health care team will encourage you to walk the day after the surgery.
- You will need to avoid heavy lifting (more than 3–4 kg) for about 4–6 weeks.
- A physiotherapist will teach you breathing or coughing exercises to help keep your lungs clear. This will reduce the risk of getting a chest infection.
- Gentle exercise has been shown to help people manage some of the common side effects of treatment and speed up a return to usual activities.
A/Prof Craig Lynch, Colorectal Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Prof Tim Price, Medical Oncologist, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide, and Clinical Professor, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Adelaide, SA; Department of Dietetics, Liverpool Hospital, NSW; Dr Hooi Ee, Gastroenterologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Debra Furniss, Radiation Oncologist, Genesis CancerCare, QLD; Jocelyn Head, Consumer; Jackie Johnston, Palliative Care and Stomal Therapy Clinical Nurse Consultant, St Vincent’s Private Hospital, NSW; Zeinah Keen, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Dr Elizabeth Murphy, Head, Colorectal Surgical Unit, Lyell McEwin Hospital, SA. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
The information on this page is also available for download.