The days and weeks after after cancer surgery can be difficult, both physically and emotionally. Here are tips for a quicker, better recovery from the Live Better With community…

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, surgery is likely to be the first stage of your treatment, especially if you have been diagnosed early.  You may be facing more treatment in the near future, such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and possibly drug or hormone therapy but, in terms of recovery, the period after surgery is important. So use that time to rest, to breathe, to heal.

Cancer patients often say that the weeks or days between initial tests, diagnosis and surgery seem almost surreal, from dealing with the initial shock of diagnosis and the complex emotions that accompany it, to pre-surgery assessments and tests and coping with what feels like information overload, and then the surgery itself.

Your hospital team will have cared for you immediately after surgery and you leave hospital with advice on wound care, a supply of painkillers to help deal with the after-effects of surgery, and information on what you can reasonably expect to do – and what to avoid – during the early stages of recovery. (If your pain starts to increase and doesn’t respond to painkillers, contact your hospital or GP without delay, especially if you start to feel feverish. Post-surgical infections are very common and can delay your recovery but should respond to a promptly prescribed course of antibiotics.)

Once you’re home, however, you may start to feel overwhelmed and wondering how you are going to cope, even if you have family or friends close at hand. You may just want to flop! We hope that our tips will help you to recover more quickly from surgery and be better prepared for the next stage of your treatment and for the future.

Take your time

‘When nervous I rub a little bit of this balm on my lips, face and pulses. Then I grab a book and cup of tea and just read for a few hours. It helps me so much to relax.’ Live Better With customer.

Your first step to recovery takes place before surgery – look after yourself as best as you possibly can: eat well, take gentle exercise, and keep doing activities that you enjoy and things that will help to keep you calm. Make a point of discussing any concerns or fears you may have about your diagnosis or treatment with your specialist cancer nurse or your GP.

Patients often ask: ‘How long will it take me to recover from surgery?’ We know approximately how long different types of surgical wounds take to heal but there isn’t a precise answer for general recovery. Everyone recovers in their own way: the time it takes will depend on factors such as:

  • your general heath and fitness
  • your age
  • your cancer diagnosis (type and stage)
  • the type of surgery you have had
  • how you are feeling emotionally

The most important thing you can give yourself is time; take each day at a steady pace that feels right for you. Setting yourself small, progressive goals, such as walking a little further each day, may help but don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t always manage to achieve them. As the saying goes:  ‘Tomorrow is another day.’

Comfort, rest and sleep

‘Sleep is important and it doesn’t matter where. My reclining armchair was the best place in the first couple of weeks.’ JaneyB, Live Better With Community Member

Comfort, rest and sleep are vital for recovery so be sure to rest whenever you need to and try to get a good night’s sleep – you may have to spend far more time in bed than you would normally do. Getting comfortable and staying comfortable, in bed or sitting down, will help. Try one of the following:

  • gel or silk eye masks
  • support pillows
  • bamboo underwear, clothing, nightwear and bedding
  • sleep balms and muscle rubs
  • overbed tables and iPad/tablet cushions
  • mattress tilters and bed hoists

Read the Live Better With guide to sleeping better here.

Movement and exercise

‘I love walking. It helps to keep me fit and it clears my mind when I am feeling low.   Robert, Live Better With Community Member

Moving whenever you can is as important as rest. If you have been physically active before surgery, you may be itching to get back to your old routine but it’s important to take things gently. Your stamina and strength levels will be lower and you must avoid straining or damaging surgical wounds.

If you are reintroducing exercise, make sure that it’s appropriate for the type of surgery you have had – ask your specialist cancer nurse or a physiotherapist for advice. Begin slowly and do a little more each day; gentle yoga stretches can be a good starting point. Here are some suggestions:

  • light exercise equipment, such as pedal and hand exercisers
  • specialist yoga books for cancer patients
  • mobility aids

Read the Live Better With guide to cancer and doing exercise here.


Showering, bathing and skin care

‘The usual, drinking lots of water to keep hydrated from the inside which we all know about . . . also a warm bath with some bath oil to help lock in any moisture in your skin.’ Anna, Live Better With Community Member

You must keep surgical wounds clean and dry in the immediate period after surgery and your specialist nurse will have given you strict guidelines on what you can and can’t do! It’s equally important to keep clean generally and to keep dry skin moisturised; apart from making you feel better, it will minimise the risk of infection Even when you can shower and bathe, you may find it more difficult because of restricted movement, but there are ways round this.

Recommended products for help with washing and bathing include:

  • bed bath wipes
  • showering and bathing aids, such as long-handled sponges
  • specialist aids, such as post-mastectomy shower belts
  • waterproof dressings and PICC line covers
  • soothing bath treatments
  • skin moisturising oils, creams and balms.


‘I was determined that cancer was not going to take over my life. I watched people in my ward with a negative outlook and watched them spiralling into depression. . . I’m one year in remission and have so much to live for. Don’t let cancer take away the person you were.’ Connie, Live Better With Community Member

Life after cancer surgery is not going to be quite the same as it was before – even when your prognosis is good and you can look forward to a full recovery. Everyone who has lived with cancer is familiar with emotional highs and lows.

It’s quite normal to feel flat or low, or worried and anxious, from time to time, even if you are generally an upbeat sort of person, but it’s not a good place to be in permanently. It will help your recovery if you can find your way back to calmness and a greater sense of ease. And try to remember what makes you feel good, whether it’s strolling in the sunshine, doing something creative, listening to music you love, having a massage, stroking the cat, sharing laughter with a good friend, or even tuning in to one of your favourite old comedy programmes on BBC Radio4 Extra. Activities like these flood the body with endorphins that make you feel better and happier. Our top tips also include:

  • aromatherapy oils, treatments and wraps
  • tension soothing balms
  • gentle exercise and yoga stretches
  • mindfulness and meditation – books and CDs
  • adult colouring books.

Do you have any tips for recovering from cancer surgery? Share your experiences and learn from others in the Live Better With cancer community.


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