How to Manage Recovery After Cancer Surgery

How to Manage Recovery After Cancer Surgery

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

Getting cancer surgery is almost never easy. Even when you know it’s good for you, the experience can be tough on your body and mind alike. The good news is that recovery (like every other part of cancer treatment) is easier when you’re prepared. Here’s what you should know to streamline your own recovery from cancer surgery.

Follow-up care is key

The cornerstone of your recovery process is your ongoing relationship with your healthcare team. Before you even leave the hospital, you should have a follow-up appointment scheduled—and a clear plan for self-care in the meantime. Here are a few questions to ask in advance:
  • How do I clean and care for the surgical wound?
  • Should I make any changes to my normal medication routines?
  • Are there specific rehabilitation / physical therapy exercises I should do?
  • What problems should I watch out for?
  • What kind of changes do I need to make in my daily life? (Think working, home maintenance, shopping, etc.)
  • Who should I call if I run into problems?
  • When will I see you next?
At your first follow-up appointment after surgery, your doctor will check in to make sure the healing process has been going well. They’ll look at your surgical wound, investigate any other symptoms you’ve had, and maybe run additional tests via imaging or blood samples. 
If you have questions (and you probably will), these follow-up visits are the perfect time to ask. Are you experiencing pain or fatigue? Are you having trouble eating, sleeping, exercising, or maintaining your normal weight? Are you feeling depressed or anxious? Have you noticed any new symptoms or signs the wound isn’t healing well? Share all of these things with your care team! Even small-seeming issues may be very important.

Lifestyle adjustments are inevitable

For many people, the toughest part of recovery is changing the way you eat, sleep, exercise, and live your daily life. But making these adjustments—and not pushing yourself too hard—is one of the biggest ways you can accelerate the healing process. Here are the major places where you’ll see an impact:


Sleep problems are more common in people with cancer, even after treatment. Fatigue is also an extremely frequent issue, which can lead to irregular sleep schedules and even more insomnia at night. But as we all know, sleep is a foundation of good health and a quick recovery. 
That’s why you want to maintain great sleep hygiene during this time: Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Avoid caffeine and electronic screens (or switch to night mode) for several hours before bedtime. And make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and a comfortable temperature (under 68 degrees). If these changes don’t do the trick, your doctor may be able to prescribe a medication to help you sleep.


Eating well is another cornerstone of good health—but it can be difficult to do when you’re feeling nauseous or have loss of appetite. Fortunately, a good dietitian can work wonders in helping you design a nutritious, well-rounded food plan (while dropping foods your doctor recommends avoiding). There are also some broad guidelines that the American Cancer Society suggests after cancer treatment:
  • Try to eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables each day; include citrus fruits and dark-green and deep-yellow vegetables.
  • Eat plenty of high-fiber foods, like whole-grain breads and cereals.
  • Avoid or limit your intake of red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) and processed meats such as salt-cured, smoked, and pickled foods (including bacon, sausage, and deli meats).
  • Choose low-fat milk and dairy products.
  • It is best not to drink alcohol. If you drink, limit the amount to no more than 1 drink per day for women, and 2 for men. Alcohol is a known cancer-causing agent.
If you’re having trouble maintaining your target weight, you’re not alone. Many people find themselves gaining or losing weight during and after cancer treatment. Just keep talking with your care team (especially your dietitian) and try to make slow-and-steady progress toward your goal.


Regular exercise yields an incredible laundry list of health benefits for cancer patients. That includes better mood, better sleep, less pain, reduced depression and anxiety, and higher self esteem. For cancer survivors, exercise also significantly decreases the chances of cancer recurrence.
So how much should you try to exercise? The American Cancer Society suggests a target of 150 minutes per week, including two days of strength training. But if you just recently had surgery, that might be far too much! Start small and work upward gradually, adding in exercise where you can. That could mean parking a little farther from your destination, taking the stairs instead of the escalator, or simply strolling around the block when you have the energy. Again, fatigue is very common among people with cancer—but staying active will help you overcome it.

Daily Life

In the weeks or months after surgery, you may not be able to do all the things you’re accustomed to doing. Something as simple as grocery shopping can be a major challenge. This has a lot to do with the type of surgery you get. For example, after breast cancer surgery, you won’t be able to do heavy lifting, pushing, or pulling with the affected side of your body. Other kinds of surgery will have different impacts.
There are two major ways you can prepare for these changes. First, ask your care team before your surgery what kind of limitations you should expect. This will give you time to prepare—e.g. by stocking up on supplies you’ll need. Second, try to pull together a team of people who can help. Talk to trusted friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers, and let them know what you might need. The more people you have in your support network, the better.

The right gear makes a huge difference

Like we said above, daily life during recovery may not work quite the way you’re used to. But  small investments in special gear can go a very long way. Here are some things that many people find useful:
  1. Shower chair: Standing in the shower while you’re fatigued or unsteady can be very hard. This sturdy, waterproof chair lets you sit while you wash.
  2. Detachable shower head: Combine this with the shower chair for an easier, more controlled shower experience.
  3. Shampoo basin: If getting out of bed is a challenge, a shampoo basin makes hair cleaning simple. You can get a hard plastic, salon-style basin or an inflatable one for easy storage.
  4. Body wipes: Sometimes called bathing wipes or shower wipes, these are rinse-free, disposable cleaning pads that let you wash off when the shower is not an option.
  5. Adhesive remover wipes: Medical tape and bandages can leave a sticky residue on your skin. Wipe it right off with these special pads.
  6. Dry shampoo: If you can’t manage a shower or if there’s an incision wound near your hair that you’re trying to keep dry, this shampoo can get you clean in a flash.
  7. Pill organizer: You might be amazed by how helpful these colorful little plastic containers are. Just sort your medications once a week and be done with it!
  8. Reusable heat/cold pack: This is simply indispensable gear if you’re dealing with aches and pains after surgery. Just pop them in the microwave or freezer and use.
  9. Reacher / grabber: This gadget makes it easy to pick things up from the floor or reach them on high shelves when you’re dealing with mobility issues.
  10. Extra washcloths: Washcloths are a critical (and undervalued) piece of home medical equipment, so stock up! It could take as many as five daily just to clean a wound.
  11. Extra cushions & pillows: A few additional pillows are game changers when you’re struggling to get comfy. That goes for wedge pillows, neck pillows, and backrests.

Complementary medicine

Sometimes called alternative or integrative medicine, this category includes a wide range of different wellness practices from different cultural backgrounds. And although these practices have sometimes been dismissed by mainstream medicine, there’s an ever-growing consensus that they have an important place in helping patients heal. 
There’s also a growing body of research showing that many of them can improve your health outcomes, boost your mental and emotional wellbeing, and help you maintain your quality of life. Some of the best-evidenced traditions you might be interested in include acupuncture, meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, massage therapy, aromatherapy, and hypnotherapy.
The wonderful thing about these practices is that most come with very little risk of side effects. In other words, there’s really no harm in trying! Just work closely with your medical team and explore the traditions that interest you.

What to watch out for

You’ll almost certainly run into some side effects and complications while you’re recovering from surgery. The most important thing you can do during this time is to work closely with your care team. Let them know during your regular checkups if you experience new symptoms or sensations.
As we mentioned above, it’s very likely that you’ll feel fatigue - a persistent tiredness that’s difficult to shake. There will probably also be some pain, but remember - you don’t have to tough it out. Pain management is a crucial aspect of your recovery, and the sooner you start treating pain, the better results you’ll get. So let your doctor know how much pain you’re in, and they’ll help you find the right approach to treat it.
There are also some more serious warning signs that you should watch out for after surgery. These include:
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Bleeding or unexplained bruising
  • Unusual pain, or any pain that’s not improving - especially at the surgical area
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pain or difficulty while urinating, or bloody, cloudy, or bad-smelling urine
If any of these issues arise, let your care team know immediately. 

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at