Side Effects of Surgery

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2016

Cancer surgery, like all cancer treatments, has its benefits, risks, and side effects. The types and intensity of side effects vary from person to person based on several factors:

  • The type and location of the cancer

  • The type of surgery

  • Other treatments received before surgery, such as chemotherapy

  • The person's overall health

Before you agree to have surgery, you will be given information about the risks and benefits of surgery. You will also learn about the possible side effects.

Today, many patients are able to have less invasive surgery than in the past. This means that the side effects of surgery are often milder and patients often recover sooner. Also, doctors are now better able to reduce pain and other physical side effects from surgery.

Relieving side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This is called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Talk with your health care team about any side effects from surgery you may experience. This includes any new side effects or a change in side effects.

Common side effects of cancer surgery

Side effects of cancer surgery may include the following:

Pain. It is common to have some pain after any surgery. The amount and location of the pain depends on many factors, including:

  • Where on the body you had surgery.

  • How large the incision was.

  • How much tissue was removed.

  • If you had pain before surgery.

Pain after surgery lessens gradually as the body heals. In the meantime, your doctor may give you pain medications to decrease your discomfort.

Fatigue. Many patients feel very tired after major surgery, especially when if surgery involved the abdomen or chest. The causes of fatigue from surgery include:

  • Anesthesia.

  • The body using energy to help with the healing process.

  • How well-nourished a person is.

  • Loss of appetite after the surgery.

  • The stress of the surgery.

Fatigue usually goes away gradually, within 2 to 4 weeks after surgery.

Appetite loss. Poor appetite after surgery is very common, especially when general anesthesia was used. It may be associated with temporary weight loss. Most patients regain their appetite and return to their normal weight as the effects of the surgery wear off.

Swelling around the site of surgery. It is natural to experience some swelling after any surgical procedure. A surgical cut in the skin, also called an incision, is a form of injury to the body. The body's natural response to injury is the inflammatory process, which causes swelling. As the healing occurs after the surgical procedure, the swelling usually goes away.

Drainage from the site of surgery. Sometimes the fluid that builds up at the surgery site drains through the surgical wound. Drainage that smells bad along with a fever and redness around the wound are signs of infection. If you develop signs of an infection, you should contact your surgeon's office.

Bruising around the site of surgery. After any surgical incision, some blood may leak from small blood vessels under the skin. This can cause bruising, which is a common occurrence after a surgical procedure. However, if you have significant swelling along with bruising, contact your surgeon's office.

Numbness. It is common to experience some numbness in the incision site since skin nerves are cut during surgery. Though it usually does not cause patients any problems, it often lasts a long time.

Bleeding. Patients usually lose some blood during surgery. But, it is usually very little and does not affect the normal functions of the body. Sometimes, patients can lose a larger amount of blood depending on the surgery. In these situations, the surgical team will have blood available for a transfusion if it is needed. After surgery, you may experience some bleeding from the wound. If this occurs, cover it with a clean, dry bandage, and contact your surgeon's office. If there is a lot of blood, apply pressure until you can get to your surgeon’s office or the local emergency room.

Infection. An infection may occur at the site of the incision, but it can also occur elsewhere in the body. Surgeons take great care to lower the risk of infection during the operation. After surgery, your health care team will teach you how to prevent infection during recovery. Signs of infection in a surgical incision include redness, warmth, increased pain, and sometimes, drainage from the wound. If you have any of these signs, contact your surgical care team. Antibiotics generally work well to treat most infections. However, some infections form an abscess. This is a closed skin cavity filled with fluid and/or pus. This usually needs to be drained in a doctor’s office. Antibiotics do not work as well for an abscess because they may not be able to reach the infection.

Lymphedema. Lymphedema is a common side effect that may occur after lymph nodes are removed. This type of surgery is called a lymph node dissection. Lymph nodes are tiny, bean-shaped organs that help fight infection. They filter bacteria and other harmful substances from the lymphatic fluid. Lymphatic fluid is a colorless fluid containing white blood cells that travels through most tissues of the body. Sometimes, when the lymph nodes are removed, lymphatic fluid collects in the surrounding tissues and cannot drain back out. This causes the swelling known as lymphedema. Lymphedema causes discomfort and tightness in the swollen area. It can also limit the movement and function of that area, such as an arm or leg. You may need specific therapy to manage this side effect. Talk with your surgical care team about the risk of lymphedema before having any lymph nodes removed. If it is a possible side effect, you may want to ask your doctor to recommend a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT). A CLT is a health professional who specializes in managing lymphedema.

Organ dysfunction. Surgery in certain areas of the body, such as the abdomen or chest, may cause temporary problems with the surrounding organs. For example, when surgery is performed in the abdomen, the intestine may become paralyzed for a short time. This means that it won’t allow food, fluid, and gas to pass through the bowels. This is called an ileus or bowel obstruction. It can cause nausea and vomiting, stomach cramps, and bloating until the bowels begin to function again. Organ dysfunction after surgery generally goes away as you heal.

Other concerns after cancer surgery

Dietary concerns. During recovery, the body needs extra calories and protein for healing. Some patients may have difficulty eating regular food. This often depends on the location where the surgery was performed. For example, the removal of any part of the mouth, throat, stomach, small intestine, colon, or rectum can cause the following problems.

  • A lowered appetite.
  • A reduction in the body's ability to absorb nutrients.
  • Problems after eating, such as gas, cramping, or constipation.
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing food.
  • Lowered ability to absorb certain vitamins, particularly after stomach surgery. Doctors usually prescribe vitamin supplements to help. Some vitamin supplements can be given only by injection.

Learn more about nutrition recommendations during and after cancer treatment.

Body image. Cancer surgery may change the way your body looks and feels and how it functions. Any surgery that changes how your body looks and functions can affect your body image. Body image can also be affected if a patient did not receive the outcome he or she expected after surgery. For example, during surgery, the surgeon may find that a more extensive surgery is needed. Patients may have trouble coping with this change afterwards.

Some people may feel insecure about these changes and struggle with their self-image. The emotional side effects of cancer surgery are as important to treat as the physical side effects. Before cancer surgery, talk with your doctor about how it will affect your appearance and abilities. Ask about options for reconstructive surgery or prostheses. And, ask about situations that might come up during surgery that would cause a different outcome. Learn more about surgery for specific types of cancer.

You may also want to consider talking with a counselor who can help you cope with these changes to your body. In addition, some patients find it helpful to join a support group of other patients in similar situations.

Sexuality and Reproduction

Certain types of surgery may affect patients’ sexual and reproductive health. In particular, talk with your doctor before your surgery about how it may affect your fertility. Fertility is a woman’s ability to conceive a child or maintain a pregnancy and a man’s ability to father a child. Learn more about fertility concerns and fertility preservation options for women and for men.

Depending on the location of the surgery, both men and women may experience sexual side effects. For example, surgery for prostate, bladder, colorectal, or other types of cancer may cause changes in sexual desire, semen production, or the ability to have an erection or ejaculate. Some gynecologic surgical procedures may cause vaginal pain or dryness.

Many men and women experience a range of feelings after such surgeries that can affect sexual desire and intimacy. It is important to discuss the symptoms you experience with your doctor, nurse, or social worker. Various options are available to help men and women manage the sexual problems from cancer and its treatment.

More Information

How Cancer is Treated

What is Cancer Surgery?

What to Expect When Having Surgery