Cancer Surgery Recovery
Postoperative Care For Cancer Patients

recovering from cancer surgery

Recovering after major cancer surgery

Cancer Surgery Recovery

Contents

Recovering From Sedatives
Wounds and Scars
Dealing With Pain
Eating and Drinking
Helping Yourself
Going Home
How Long Does Recovery Take?


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Recovering From Sedatives

Depending on the sedatives or anesthetic the woman received and how her body reacts to them, she may be instantly alert or remember very little for the first 24 hours after cancer surgery. Sooner or later she will start to notice the tubes still inserted, the bandages and the pain. An IV tube may remain inserted for administering fluids, antibiotics and possibly pain relief medications. If it is not needed the nurse removes the IV but may leave the catheter inserted in the skin. This is a precaution in case the IV needs to be reinserted again. Depending on the surgery, some tubes will be put in place to keep the surgical area drained of fluid or blood so it does not build up and cause pain or stress to the incision. The tube may be attached to a portable suction device which can be opened and emptied periodically. If the patient needs to keep the suction in place when she goes home, a nurse will teach her how to use it. When drainage is no longer needed a doctor will remove the tube. It may feel like a long piece of string being pulled from under the skin and it helps to breathe deeply as it is being removed. The point of incision closes immediately. Women who undergo major gynecologic surgery (for ovarian cancer or cervical cancer for example) will also have a Foley catheter inserted through the opening of the bladder (urethra) to drain their urine. Once the tube is inserted a small balloon on the end will be inflated with water to keep it in place. This means she will not have to worry about bedpans for a few days as the catheter is attached to a portable drainage bag. When it is time to remove it, the balloon is deflated and the catheter slips out. Some women report having to 'relearn' how to urinate again after it is removed.

Wounds and Scars

In most cases the doctor will close the surgical incision and cover it with a bulky dressing or he leaves it to heal in the open air without cover. The incision is closed with stitches or special tiny tape strips. If the stitches are the type not absorbed by the body the doctor will remove them after about 2 weeks. The strips fall off naturally in about 10-14 days after surgery. Sometimes staples are used instead of stitches and these need to be removed with a staple remover about 7 days after surgery. In a few instances the surgeon will leave the incision open so that it can heal from the inside out. This will require special dressings, drainage and aftercare. Nurses will regularly inspect the scar for signs of inflammation or infection, and the patient will be given instructions on how to do this for the first days when they return home. While some scars gradually become faint in appearance, others may build up thick scar tissue (called keloid). Some women report great results by rubbing vitamin E oil into the incision point, but some surgeons say this can slow the healing process down and should be avoided for a few weeks. If scars are particularly unsightly plastic surgery is always an option.

Dealing With Pain

Research shows that nearly 50 percent of patients, including those who are given some sort of pain therapy, still experience moderate to severe pain after surgery. Although pain may be expected, studies show that it can actually slow the healing process down. Fortunately there are new methods these days for reducing postoperative pain. These include patient controlled analgesia (PCA). PCA delivers medications by IV into the patient's vein when they press a button. Sometimes it results in less drugs being taken because the patient can stay ahead of the pain, rather than waiting for a nurse to administer it when things get bad. Powerful narcotics may also be prescribed in the first few days.

Eating and Drinking

Although it may be the last thing you want to do, eating and drinking is an important part of the recovery process. Initially you may be given clear liquids and ice chips. Before moving to solids the doctors will want to check that your digestive tract is working normally (this is normally the last part of the body to recover after surgery drugs). You may have to urinate into a container to check the amount you are passing and signs for bowel activity will need to be noted (such as passing gas). Until this happens the patient is kept on a liquid diet.

Helping Yourself

Lung Problem Prevention
General anesthesia affects the lungs and so they are particularly vulnerable immediately after surgery. To prevent any problems arising it is important to practice breathing several times an hour while awake. To do so, inhale deeply until the diaphragm and abdomen move out and then exhale gently. It helps to rest the thumbs on the bottom of the ribs while you do so. Sometimes the patient will be given an incentive spirometer to help the breathing process. She inhales through a tube which makes a device rise in a chamber so she can gauge how deeply she is breathing. The 'incentive' part is that she can try to beat her own record! Coughing also helps the lungs by keeping any unwanted substances from settling. Always hold a pillow or hand firmly over the wound area as this will help prevent pain or tearing of stitches.

Preventing Blood Clots
Even if you are bed-bound you can start moving your body by turning from side to side, stretching the legs, moving them in small circles or tensing and releasing the leg muscles. As soon as you can walk you will be encouraged to do so to avoid blood clots forming. Walking will also help to expand the lungs, move blood to the incision site aiding recovery and protect the body from bedsores. At first you may need the aid of a wheelchair, if it is available. It provides a handy support to lean on, and a chair to rest in if you get tired.

Going Home

Once you are considered well enough to go home - and this will depend on if you are eating and walking and the results of postoperative tests - be sure to ask your healthcare team:

• How to care/dress your wound at home.
• What potential 'problem' signs you should look for.
• What activities you can and cannot do.
• What medications to take and how often.
• Do you need to be doing any rehabilitation activities?
• If there are any restrictions on your diet.
• Who to call if there is a problem.

How Long Does Recovery Take?

No two patients are alike when it comes to cancer treatments and recovery times. The recovery timeframe depend on a number of factors:

1. Choice of treatment: A lumpectomy will heal faster than mastectomy for example.
2. The health and age of the patient before surgery.
3. Whether radiation therapy or chemo (see chemotherapy guide) was also given.

Studies show that the psychological effects of cancer treatments can last much longer - that is the impact it has on a person's emotions and lifestyle. This is particularly the case if an amputation was involved (such as a mastectomy) or if there is a risk of recurrence. They may become more anxious around the anniversary of their original diagnosis and can be reluctant to plan ahead for anything. Talking to close friends or family, or a counselor can help to ease some worries.

If you are worried about a recurrence and would like to lower your risks, read our cancer prevention section. Eating a balanced diet and including cancer fighting foods may certainly help. Taking regular exercise, quitting smoking if you do smoke and drinking alcohol in moderation is also important. Finally, be sure to check out if there are any books on cancer which may help with practical advice. Survivor guides are always uplifting.

  Related Articles on Female Cancers

Cancer Symptoms - Know the early signs.
What does cancer remission mean?

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