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 the actual risks for your type of surgery.
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.
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The biggest risk of infection after surgery is at the wound site, but infection can also occur in the chest, in the urinary tract, and around the catheter site. Sometimes the doctor will prescribe medicine before surgery to prevent infection (prophylactic antibiotics).
In hospital, you will be checked for signs of infection, such as:
- tenderness, redness, swelling or a discharge around the wound
- cloudy urine
- shortness of breath
- chest pain.
After you go home, if the wound site is red, getting bigger, painful or oozing, have it checked by your GP, nurse or doctor. If you are given antibiotics, it is important to take the full course to completely kill bacteria and prevent infection.
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, further surgery to stop the bleeding, or an iron infusion to help restore haemoglobin levels in the blood.
To reduce the risk of developing blood clots in the deep veins of the legs or pelvis (deep vein thrombosis or DVT), you may have to wear compression stockings or have pills or injections of blood-thinning medicine for a couple of weeks after the surgery.
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 with help from the nurses and physiotherapists. Your medical team will observe your breathing and provide medicine to control any pain.
Although you’ll need to rest after surgery, it’s important to get up and move around when it is safe to do so. Based on your surgeon’s recommendations, a physiotherapist or nurse may help you to get moving and give you advice about the best exercises to do. If you aren’t mobile, your muscles may get weak (atrophy). Generally, the sooner you are able to get up and move, the better your recovery will be.
If lymph nodes are removed, fluid can build up in the tissues under the skin and cause swelling. It’s common to have some swelling after surgery but this usually settles in the weeks afterwards. If this swelling builds up over weeks or months, it is known as lymphoedema. It is important to seek help as soon as possible because early diagnosis and treatment lead to better outcomes.
For more on this, see Lymphoedema.
Podcast: Coping with a cancer diagnosis
Prof Elisabeth Elder, Specialist Breast Surgeon, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute and University of Sydney, NSW; Chanelle Curnuck, Dietitian – Dietetics and Nutrition, Sir Charles Gairdner Osborne Park Health Care Group, WA; Department of Anaesthetics, Perioperative Medicine and Pain Medicine, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Jessica Feeney, Nurse Unit Manager, Breast, Endocrine and Gynaecology, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; John Leung, Consumer; Rohan Miegel, Senior Physiotherapist – Cancer Care, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; A/Prof Nicholas O’Rourke, University of Queensland and Head of Hepatobiliary Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital, QLD; Lucy Pollerd, Social Worker, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Suzanne Ryan, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Department of General Surgery, Sunshine Coast University Hospital, QLD; Rebecca Yeoh, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland.
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