Side Effects of Surgery

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2021

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

  • Location and type of cancer

  • Type of surgery

  • Other treatments received before surgery, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy

  • Your general health

  • The symptoms you had before surgery

Before you agree to have any surgery, your health care team will tell you about the risks and benefits. You will also learn about any possible side effects.

Today, many operations are less invasive than they were in the past. Surgery side effects are often milder and people can recover sooner. Also, there are more ways to reduce pain and treat other physical side effects from surgery. Even so, most surgery has a significant effect on the body, and you can have short-term and long-term side effects afterward.

Relieving side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This is called palliative care or supportive care. If you are concerned about side effects from surgery, it is important to let your health care team know. After surgery, let your health care team know about any side effects you experience, including new and changing side effects, so that they can help relieve the problem or stop it from worsening.

What are common side effects after surgery?

Pain. During and right after surgery, a surgeon typically works with the anesthesiologist to manage pain using medication to block the awareness of pain, called anesthesia. An anesthesiologist is a doctor who specializes in giving anesthesia and caring for people who receive it.

After surgery, it is common to have some pain from the surgery's effect on the body. The amount and location of the pain varies depending on your surgery. Factors that can affect the pain you experience include:

  • Location of the surgery

  • Size of incision, or surgical cut

  • Amount of tissue removed

  • If you had pain before surgery

Let your health care team know how you are feeling during recovery. Pain after surgery usually goes away gradually as the body heals. In the meantime, your doctor may give you pain medications to decrease your discomfort.

Fatigue. Fatigue is also common after surgery. Many people are very tired after major surgery, especially when it involves the abdomen or chest. The causes of fatigue from surgery include:

  • Anesthesia

  • The energy your body uses to help heal

  • Loss of appetite after surgery

  • Stress of surgery

Fatigue usually goes away gradually 2 to 4 weeks after surgery. Be sure to ask what is typical for the type of surgery you are having.

Appetite loss. You may not eat as much as you normally do after surgery. Poor appetite is very common, especially when people receive general anesthesia. You may lose weight because you are not eating normally. Most people regain their appetite and return to their normal weight as the effects of surgery wear off. If your appetite does not return, tell a member of your health care team.

Problems with other parts of your body. Surgery in certain parts of the body, such as the abdomen or chest, may cause temporary problems with surrounding organs. This is called organ dysfunction. For example, the intestine may become paralyzed for a short time after surgery in the abdomen. This means that the intestine will not allow food, fluid, and gas to pass through the bowels. This is called an ileus. It can cause nausea and vomiting, stomach cramps, and bloating until the bowels begin to function again. Organ dysfunction generally goes away as you heal, but it is important to let your health care team know if you experience any signs of an ileus or other problems. They can help you manage the symptoms of organ dysfunction.

What side effects occur at the site of surgery?

You may have side effects specific to the site where you had surgery. Keep an eye on these potential side effects to reduce the chance of infection and relieve pain. Let your doctor or another health care provider know if there's a side effect you are concerned about.

Common side effects at the surgery site include:

Swelling. It is normal to experience some swelling at the surgery site. A surgical cut in the skin is a form of injury and a body's response to injury is inflammation. As you heal from surgery, swelling usually goes away.

Drainage. You may have some 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, redness around the wound, or a fever could indicate infection (see below).

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 an 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

  • More pain

  • Drainage from the wound

If you have any of these signs, contact your surgical care team. Antibiotics generally work well to treat most infections.

Some infections form an abscess. This is a closed cavity filled with fluid or pus. A doctor usually has to drain an abscess. Antibiotics do not work as well for an abscess because the medication may not be able to reach the infection.

Bruising. You may see bruising around the surgery site. After a surgical incision, some blood can leak from small blood vessels under the skin. Contact your surgeon's office if you notice significant swelling along with bruising.

Numbness. Because nerves in the skin are cut during surgery, it is common to experience numbness. Though numbness usually does not cause a person any problems, but it often lasts a long time and it can be permanent. Ask if any nerves will be affected by your surgery.

Wound bleeding. After surgery, you may experience some bleeding from the wound. Follow your health care team's advice for how to take care of your wound and let them know if you have bleeding. This usually involves covering your wound with a clear, dry bandage. If there is a lot of blood, apply pressure until you can get to your surgeon's office or the local emergency room.

What are the side effects of removing lymph nodes?

Lymph nodes are small, 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 cancer starts in your lymph nodes or may spread to your lymph nodes. In this case, the surgeon may remove lymph nodes as part of your surgery.

Lymphedema is a possible side effect of removing lymph nodes. Lymphedema is when fluid collects in the surrounding tissues and cannot drain back out. This causes swelling, tightness, and discomfort. It can also limit the movement and function of that area, such as an arm or a leg. You may need physical therapy or other care to manage this side effect.

Talk with your surgical care team about the risks of lymphedema before having any lymph nodes removed. If it is a possible side effect, you may want to ask your health care team to recommend a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT). A CLT is a health professional who specializes in managing lymphedema.

What else can happen after surgery?

You may need extra calories and protein for healing after surgery. However, some people may have difficulty eating regular food due to the operation's effects. This often depends on the part of the body affected by surgery.

Surgery on such parts of the body as mouth, throat, stomach, small intestine, colon, or rectum can cause the following problems:

  • Loss of appetite

  • Reduction in the body's ability to absorb nutrients or certain vitamins

  • Gas, cramping, or constipation after eating

  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing food

Doctors usually prescribe vitamin supplements if you cannot absorb vitamins. Some vitamin supplements can be given only by injection. It may also be helpful to talk with a registered dietitian if surgery could have a significant impact on your ability to eat well. Listen to a podcast about managing eating challenges after head and neck cancer treatment and a podcast about nutrition during and after colorectal cancer.

Learn more about nutrition recommendations during and after cancer treatment.

How can surgery affect sexual health and fertility?

Certain types of surgery may affect sexual and reproductive health.

Fertility is the ability to conceive a child or maintain a pregnancy. Before your operation, talk with your health care team about if or how surgery may affect your fertility.

Sexual side effects can also occur depending on the location of the surgery. Surgery for prostate cancer, bladder cancer, colorectal cancer, or other types of cancer can cause changes in semen production or the ability to have an erection or ejaculate. Gynecologic surgical procedures can cause vaginal pain or dryness.

Many people experience a range of feelings after surgeries that can affect sexual desire and intimacy. It is important to discuss the symptoms you experience with your health care team. Various options are available to help you manage sexual problems from cancer and its treatment.

Learn more about about side effects that affect intimacy, sexual health, and fertility.

How can surgery affect body image?

Cancer surgery may change the way your body looks, feels, and functions. This can affect your how you feel about your body, also called your body image. Body image can also be affected if a person did not receive the outcome they expected after surgery. For example, during surgery, the surgeon may find that a more extensive surgery is needed.

Some people may feel upset or insecure about the changes to their body and struggle with self-image. The emotional side effects of cancer surgery are as important to treat as the physical side effects.

Before your cancer surgery:

  • Gather information to prepare yourself for how surgery will affect your body, appearance, and abilities. Ask your health care team for details on what to expect. This can give you time to help adjust to the changes and avoid being surprised afterwards.

  • If necessary, ask about options for reconstructive surgery or prostheses. A prosthesis is an artificial body part.

  • Ask if there are situations that might come up during your surgery that could cause a different outcome.

  • Ask about your options for cancer rehabilitation and other ways to improve your recovery from surgery.

  • Talk about what type of help you may need at home, called caregiving, and for how long.

After your cancer surgery:

  • Follow your health care team's instructions about your post-surgery care, including wound care, nutrition recommendations, and physical activity.

  • Give yourself the time to heal and take part in activities that you enjoy, such as journaling or creating art.

  • Let your health care team know how you are feeling, both physically and emotionally.

  • Consider talking with a counselor who can help you cope with changes to your body.

  • Join a support group.

Questions to ask the health care team about side effects

  • What kind of surgery do I need? Can you explain my surgery?

  • What are the common side effects of this surgery?

  • If they occur, what can the health care team do to relieve them?

  • What will my recovery from this surgery be like?

  • When should I let you know if I experience any side effects?

  • Are there any side effects that are urgent? If that happens, should I call the doctor or go to the emergency room?

  • Will I need assistance with bathing, dressing, meal preparation, or other personal care during my recovery? For how long?

  • Will I have restrictions on driving after this surgery? For how long?

  • Could this surgery affect my sex life? If so, how and for how long?

  • Could this surgery affect my ability to have a child in the future? If so, can you recommend a fertility specialist I can talk with before having this surgery?

  • If I feel sad or anxious during my recovery, who can I talk with?

Related Resources

What is Cancer Surgery?

What to Expect When Having Surgery

When to Call the Doctor During Cancer Treatment

More Information

National Cancer Institute's Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Lymph Nodes and Cancer from the American Cancer Society