Side Effects of Surgery

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2018

Cancer surgery, like all cancer treatments, has 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 general health.

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

Today, many people are able to have less invasive surgery than in the past. This means that surgery side effects are often milder and people often recover sooner. Also, doctors are 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 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

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

  • Where on the body you had surgery

  • How large the incision, or surgical cut, 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 people feel very tired after major surgery, especially when it involves the abdomen or chest. The causes of fatigue from surgery include:

  • Anesthesia

  • The body using energy to help with the healing process

  • How nourished the person is

  • Loss of appetite after the surgery

  • The stress of the surgery

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

Appetite loss. Poor appetite after surgery is very common, especially when people receive general anesthesia. It may be associated with temporary weight loss. Most people 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 surgery. A surgical cut in the skin is a form of injury to the body. The body's natural response to injury is inflammation, which causes swelling. As the healing occurs after surgery, 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. Signs of infection include drainage that smells bad, fever, and redness around the wound. If you develop signs of an infection, contact your surgeon's office. See below for more information on infections.

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 surgery. But 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. This is because the nerves in the skin are cut during surgery. Though numbness usually does not cause a person any problems, it often lasts a long time.

Bleeding. During surgery, people usually lose some blood. But it is usually very little and does not affect the body’s normal functions. Sometimes people can lose a larger amount of blood depending on the surgery. In these situations, the surgical team will have blood available in case a transfusion 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 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. But some infections form an abscess. This is a closed skin cavity filled with fluid and/or pus. A doctor usually has to drain an abscess. 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 health care team 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 will not 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 people 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:

  • Loss of 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, feels, and functions. This can affect your body image. Body image can also be affected if a person 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. People may have trouble coping with this change afterward.

Some people may feel insecure about 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 health care team about how it will affect your appearance and abilities.

  • Ask about options for reconstructive surgery or prostheses.

  • Ask about situations that might come up during surgery that would cause a different outcome.

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

  • Join a support group of other people in similar situations.

Sexuality and Reproduction

Certain types of surgery may affect sexual and reproductive health.

  • Fertility. Before your surgery, talk with your health care team 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 men.

  • Sexual side effects. Depending on the location of the surgery, men and women may experience sexual side effects. For example, surgery for prostate cancer, bladder cancer, colorectal cancer, 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.

  • Other side effects. Many men and women 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 the sexual problems from cancer and its treatment.

Related Resources

What is Cancer Surgery?

What to Expect When Having Surgery