Side effects of surgery

Side effects can happen with any type of cancer treatment, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

Side effects can develop any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after surgery. Sometimes late side effects develop months or years after surgery. Most side effects will go away on their own or can be treated, but some may last a long time or become permanent.

Different types of surgery can cause different side effects, or complications. The approach or technique that the surgeon uses can also cause certain side effects. The side effects you have after surgery will also depend on your overall health and other cancer treatments you receive. Your surgeon and healthcare team will work together to try to limit the side effects you have after surgery and how severe the side effects are.

Some people worry that cancer cells can spread during a biopsy or when a tumour is exposed to the air during surgery. Exposure to air does not cause cancer to spread. There is only a very small chance that a biopsy will cause cancer to spread. Doctors are careful to prevent cancer from spreading into healthy tissue during surgery. The benefits of doing the surgery usually far outweigh the risks.

Side effects of surgery will depend mainly on:

  • the type and location of the surgery
  • what is done or removed during surgery
  • your overall health
  • the effect of other cancer treatments (for example, tissue treated with radiation may not heal well after surgery)

The risk of side effects is usually lower in children than in adults because children can usually move and walk around soon after surgery. Most children who have surgery will not experience serious side effects.

Tell your healthcare team if you have these side effects or others you think might be from your surgery. The sooner they are aware of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Sore throat

If you are given a general anesthetic, a tube may be placed in your windpipe to help you breathe during surgery. Putting this tube in and taking it out may cause a sore throat. This is a temporary side effect that usually goes away soon after surgery.


Pain often happens after surgery because of trauma to the tissue. It may take time for pain to go away after surgery, depending on the procedure done and how well you heal or cope with pain. Pain-relieving medicines may be given to control pain. Specific types and doses of pain medicines are safe for children.

Check with your healthcare team if pain does not go away or pain medicines do not relieve the pain.

Find out more about pain.

Nausea and vomiting

Nausea and vomiting can occur because of the effects of a general anesthetic used during surgery. Medicines are often given to prevent and control nausea and vomiting. Nausea and vomiting are usually temporary side effects and often go away a few days after surgery.

Find out more about nausea and vomiting.

Problems urinating

Sometimes people have trouble urinating after surgery (called urinary retention). This side effect can be caused by certain drugs that may be used for anesthesia or to control pain.

The healthcare team will monitor when and how much you urinate for a short time right after surgery. If you cannot urinate, they may place a tube (called a catheter) to drain the bladder until you regain bladder control.


Bleeding, or hemorrhage, can occur if a blood vessel is not sealed off during surgery or if you have a blood-clotting disorder. Nursing staff frequently check bandages and drains for heavy bleeding right after surgery. If bleeding occurs and is severe enough, you may have to go back to the operating room so the surgeon can find where the bleeding is coming from and stop it.

A small amount of bloody drainage may be expected after surgery. Report larger amounts to your doctor or healthcare team.

Wound infection

Some people develop a wound infection after surgery. This is not a common side effect, but can happen after any type of surgery. Sometimes tubes are placed into the wound to drain extra fluid. Antibiotics may be given to help prevent or treat an infection. Wound infections are a temporary side effect of surgery.

Tell your doctor or healthcare team about signs of infection, such as redness, pus or foul-smelling drainage, increased swelling or tenderness where the incision (cut) was made or increased temperature (fever).

Blood clots

A blood clot in the leg is called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT can occur right after surgery because a person cannot move around very well or because of other factors. In the most serious cases, a blood clot can break off and travel to the lungs (called a pulmonary embolus, or PE). PE causes shortness of breath and low oxygen levels.

Stopping smoking before surgery helps lower the risk of developing blood clots. Frequent position changes, leg and ankle exercises and getting up and moving around soon after surgery also help reduce blood clots. People who are at high risk for developing blood clots may be given low doses of a blood thinner, such as heparin, to help reduce the risk.

Tell your doctor or healthcare team if you have any redness, swelling, pain or cramps in the calf of the leg.

Gastrointestinal problems

The intestine may be affected by the anesthetic so it doesn’t work as it should. This can cause a problem called paralytic ileus. Paralytic ileus is when the intestine becomes paralyzed or inactive and stomach contents cannot move through it.

The healthcare team will check your bowel activity after surgery. You will gradually be allowed to take in fluids and foods by mouth (orally).

Lung problems

Lung problems can occur for a variety of reasons, including the location of the incision, type of surgery done, lung problems you already have or smoking. The 2 main types of lung problems that may occur are lung infection (called pneumonia) and collapsed lung (called atelectasis).

Stopping smoking before surgery helps prevent lung infections and collapsed lung. Frequent deep breathing, coughing and turning in bed can help lower the chance that you will have lung problems after surgery. Some people may be given a special device called an incentive spirometer to breathe into. This device helps them take deep breaths.

Tell your doctor or healthcare team if, after surgery, you have shortness of breath, fever or a cough.

Wound separation

The edges of a wound are usually held in place with stitches or staples until the incision heals enough to remove them. The edges of the wound may separate, or come apart, after surgery (called dehiscence). Minor separation of the skin edges may not be a serious problem. But separation of underlying muscle or fat edges can be more serious. It may lead to an organ or tissue sticking out through the underlying tissue (called a hernia).

Try to avoid strenuous physical activity for 6–8 weeks after surgery to help prevent wound separation. Tell the doctor or healthcare team if your incision doesn’t heal, a gap opens in the incision or it feels like the incision has come open.

Nerve pain

Nerve pain may occur when surgery is done on tissues close to nerves. Nerve pain can develop long after surgery is over and may last a long time. This side effect may be treated with pain medicines or pain-relieving therapies, such as acupuncture.

Nerve damage

Some types of surgery may damage or remove nerves. This can cause a loss of feeling (numbness) or changes in feeling. Nerve damage can develop long after surgery is over and may last a long time.

There is no specific treatment for nerve damage, but some feeling may return over time. People with nerve damage may be more prone to injury because they do not feel pain as they used to. Some people may have surgery to reconstruct the nerve if nerve damage affects how well certain organs work.

Swelling of the limbs

Swelling of limbs (called lymphedema) can occur when lymph nodes are removed and fluid builds up in the tissues. Lymphedema may develop long after surgery is over and may last a long time.

Talk to your healthcare team about ways to manage lymphedema. Elevating the limb and wearing compression bandages can help to reduce the lymphedema.

Find out more about lymphedema.


Scarring occurs as part of the healing process after surgery. Scars are often visible for a long time after surgery or they are permanent. They usually fade over time.

For many types of cancer, surgeons can use less extreme, or less radical, types of surgery. This usually means that they make a smaller incision and there is less scarring. Newer techniques limit the damage to normal tissues, and reconstructive surgery helps reduce noticeable physical changes from surgery.


Shock is a dangerous side effect that can happen during or after surgery. It is a reduction of blood flow throughout the body. It is most often caused by low blood pressure.

Treatment for shock includes:

  • stopping any blood loss
  • maintaining an open airway
  • laying the person down
  • reducing heat loss with blankets
  • intravenous (IV) fluids or blood
  • oxygen therapy
  • medicine

Reaction to anesthetic

Although rare, reactions to anesthetics do occur. Symptoms can include:

  • light-headedness
  • wheezing
  • rash
  • low blood pressure
  • high temperature (fever)
  • liver problems
  • agitation and confusion

Reactions to anesthetics are usually temporary. People who have a reaction may be given supportive care to manage the symptoms.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society . Surgery. American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society (ACS). Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2011.
  • Gillespie,T.N. . Surgical Therapy. Yarbro, CH, Wujcki D, & Holmes Gobel B. (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: Chapter 11:pp.232-248.
  • Rosenberg,S.A. . Surgical oncology: general issues. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, & Rosenberg SA. Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2011: Chapter25:pp268-278.