Recovery after surgery
The length of your hospital stay and the side effects you experience will depend on the type of surgery you have. Most people are in hospital for a few days to a week. You will need to take care while you recover. Your doctor will tell you when you can start regular activities again.
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Recovery timeYour recovery time will depend on your age, the type of surgery you had and your general health. If only a small amount of skin is removed, the wound will heal quickly and you can go home in a day or two. If your lymph nodes are removed or the surgery is more extensive, recovery will take longer. You may spend up to a week in hospital.
Having pain reliefAfter an operation it is common to feel some pain, but this can be controlled. You will be given pain medicine as a tablet, through a drip into a vein (intravenously), through a drip into a space around the spinal cord (epidural), or through a button you press to give yourself a measured dose of pain relief (patient-controlled analgesia or PCA). After you go home, you can continue taking pain-relieving tablets as needed.
Bowel issuesStrong pain medicines and long periods in bed can make bowel motions difficult to pass (constipation). Avoid straining when having a bowel movement. Talk to your treatment team about taking laxatives if needed.
StitchesYour doctor will tell you how soon you can sit up and walk after surgery and how to avoid the stitches coming apart. Stitches usually dissolve and disappear as the wound heals. Some surgeons use surgical glue instead of stitches. The glue falls off when the wound has healed.
Wound careInfection is a risk after vulvar surgery, so keep the area clean and dry. While you are in hospital, the nurses will wash and dry the vulva for you a few times a day. They may also apply a cream to help prevent infection.
The nurses will show you how to look after the wound at home. You will need to wash it 2–3 times a day using a handheld shower or shallow basin (sitz bath). Use a soft, squeezable plastic water bottle to rinse the vulva with water after urinating or having a bowel movement. Dry the vulva well. If the area is numb, be careful patting it dry. Report any redness, pain, swelling, wound discharge or unusual smell to your doctor or nurse.
Tubes and drainsYou may have a tube called a catheter to drain urine from your bladder. This helps keep your wound clean and dry. It will be removed before you leave hospital. There may also be a surgical drain to draw fluid away from the wound. You may go home with the drain in place if there is still fluid coming out. Community nurses can help you manage the care of the drain at home until it is removed.
What to wearWhile you are in bed, you may need to wear compression stockings and have blood-thinning injections to prevent blood clots forming in your legs. Wear loose-fitting clothing and avoid underwear so your wound can air.
Do not put anything into your vagina after surgery until your doctor says the area is healed (usually 6–8 weeks). This includes using tampons and having sex.
Taking care of yourself at home after surgery
When you return home from hospital after surgery for vulvar cancer, there will be a period of recovery and adjustment.
You will need to take things easy and get plenty of rest in the first week. Avoid sitting for long periods of time if it is uncomfortable, or try sitting on a pillow or doughnut cushion.
Check with your gynaecological oncologist or nurse about when you can start doing your regular activities. You may not be able to lift anything heavy, but gentle exercise such as walking can help speed up recovery. Because of the risk of infection, avoid swimming until your doctor says you can.
If you have lost part of your genital area, you may feel a sense of loss and grief. It may help to talk about how you are feeling with someone you trust. For more on this, see Effect on your emotions.
Sexual intercourse needs to be avoided for about 6–8 weeks after surgery. Ask your doctor when you can have sexual intercourse again, and explore other ways you and your partner can be intimate. You may feel concerned about the impact on your sex life after surgery. For more on this, see Impact on sexuality.
Using the toilet
If the opening to your urethra is affected, you may find that going to the toilet is different. The urine stream might spray in different directions or go to one side. Read tips on managing bladder issues.
You will need to avoid driving after the surgery until your wounds have healed and you are no longer in pain. Discuss this issue with your doctor.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
A/Prof Alison Brand, Director, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Ellen Barlow, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Royal Hospital for Women, NSW; Jane Conroy-Wright, Consumer; Rebecca James, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Suparna Karpe, Clinical Psychologist, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Dr Pearly Khaw, Consultant Radiation Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Sally McCoull, Consumer; A/Prof Orla McNally, Gynaecological Oncologist and Director, Oncology/Dysplasia, The Royal Women’s Hospital, and Director, Gynaecology Tumour Stream,Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, VIC; Haley McNamara, Social Worker and Project Manager, Care at End of Life Project, Queensland Health, QLD; Tamara Wraith, Senior Clinician – Physiotherapy, The Royal Women’s Hospital, VIC.
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