What to expect after surgery
How long you stay in hospital will depend on the type of surgery you have and how well you recover. If surgery is minor, recovery is usually fast and there are often few long-term side effects. For more advanced cancer, surgery will be more extensive, lasting eight hours or more, and it will often cause permanent side effects.
Side effects after head and neck cancer surgery vary greatly depending on your age, your general health, how extensive the surgery was and whether you also had reconstructive surgery. Your surgeon can give you a better idea of what to expect after the operation. The side effects listed below are often temporary. For more information about ongoing effects, see Managing side effects.
You will have some pain and discomfort for several days after surgery, but you will be given pain-relieving medicines to manage this. You may be given tablets, or you may have patient-controlled analgesia (PCA), which delivers a measured dose of pain relief through a drip when you press a button.
Drips and drains
You may have tubes at the surgery site to drain excess fluid from the wound. These are usually removed after a few days, depending on how much fluid is being collected and the type of surgery. You may also have a tube from your bladder to drain urine into a bag. This is known as a catheter.
Your ability to speak may be affected. This side effect is often temporary, but see Changes to speech if it is ongoing.
You may have some throat discomfort from the anaesthetic tube. This kind of discomfort or irritation usually lasts less than 24 hours. You may also have a sore throat as a result of surgery for pharyngeal or laryngeal surgery; this is usually short-term.
If your mouth, tongue or throat is expected to be swollen after the surgery, it could make breathing difficult. The surgeon may discuss inserting a temporary tracheostomy in your neck to allow you to breathe (see Breathing changes for more information). Surgery to the nasal cavity may change the way you breathe through your nose. This may be temporary or longer-lasting.
Eating and drinking
You will usually have a drip to give you fluids. You will start with drinking clear liquids, move on to pureed food, and then soft foods. If eating and drinking is going to be difficult or delayed, a temporary feeding tube may be inserted through your nasal passageway for a few days or weeks. Alternatively, a gastrostomy tube, known as a PEG or a RIG feeding tube, may be inserted into your stomach. If you have reconstructive surgery to your mouth or throat, you may have a feeding tube to allow the free flap to heal.
Your health care team will encourage you to walk the day of the surgery, or the day after, depending on how extensive your surgery was. Moving around as much as possible will speed up your recovery and reduce the chance of blood clots or infections. The nurse or a physiotherapist will show you how to move around safely. A physiotherapist will teach you breathing or coughing exercises to help your lungs clear and reduce the risk of getting a chest infection.
A/Prof David Wiesenfeld, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Director, Head and Neck Tumour Stream, The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Melbourne Health, VIC; Alan Bradbury, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist, John Hunter Hospital, NSW; Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, QLD; Jedda Clune, Senior Dietitian (Head and Neck Cancer), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Dr Ben Dixon, ENT, Head and Neck Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Emma Hair, Senior Social Worker, St George Hospital, NSW; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kara Hutchinson, Head and Neck Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Julia Maclean, Speech Pathologist, St George Hospital, NSW; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andrea Wong, Physiotherapist, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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