Complications after surgery
Sometimes problems or complications occur after surgery. It’s very unlikely that all of the problems described here would apply to you. Your surgeon can give you a better idea of your actual risks.
Generally, the more complex the surgery is, the higher the chance of problems. Most complications are minor and can be treated easily, but some can have serious consequences.
Learn more about:
The biggest risk of infection after surgery is at the wound site, but infection can also occur in the chest, in the urine, and around the catheter site. There are some simple ways to prevent infections. Sometimes the doctor will prescribe medicine before surgery (prophylactic antibiotics). You will be checked for signs of infection, such as tenderness, redness or swelling around the wound or a discharge from the wound, cloudy urine, cough, shortness of breath and chest pain.
Bleeding can happen inside the body (internally) or outside the body (externally). Internal bleeding can occur if a blood vessel breaks free after surgery, and external bleeding can occur if a wound opens up. Your medical team will manage any bleeding after surgery. This could include giving you a blood transfusion or further surgery to stop the bleeding.
When I had breast reconstruction surgery, I was given two blood transfusions. I had told my doctor I didn’t want anyone else’s blood, but in the end I was very grateful because the transfusions saved my life.
All surgery and some cancers increase the risk of developing blood clots in the deep veins of the legs or pelvis (deep vein thrombosis or DVT). There are ways to prevent this from occurring, including being given injections of anti-clotting drugs, wearing compression stockings during and after surgery, and using devices called pneumatic cuffs to keep the calf muscles moving during and sometimes after surgery. The nurses will also encourage you to get out of bed and move around as soon as you feel up to it.
After surgery, it may be painful to breathe or cough for a period of time, particularly if you have had surgery to your chest or abdomen. A physiotherapist will teach you breathing or coughing exercises to help keep your lungs clear and reduce the risk of a chest infection. You will be encouraged to get out of bed and move around. Your medical team will observe your breathing during your recovery and provide medicine to control any pain you have.
Although you’ll need to rest after surgery, it’s important to get up and move around. If you aren’t mobile, your muscles may get weak (atrophy). A physiotherapist or nurse may help you to get moving as soon as possible and give you advice about the best exercises to do. Generally, the sooner you are able to get up and move, the better your recovery will be.
Prof Andrew Spillane, Surgical Oncologist, Melanoma Institute of Australia, and Professor of Surgical Oncology, The University of Sydney Northern Clinical School, NSW; Lynne Hendrick, Consumer; Judy Holland, Physiotherapist, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Kara Hutchinson, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Declan Murphy, Urologist and Director of Genitourinary Oncology, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Prof Stephan Schug, Director of Pain Medicine, Royal Perth Hospital, and Chair of Anaesthesiology and Pain Medicine, The University of Western Australia Medical School, WA; Dr Emma Secomb, Specialist Surgeon, Hinterland Surgical Centre, QLD. We would like to thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Click below to download a PDF booklet on this topic.