Coping with pain after cancer surgery

Cancer surgery is scary for most people. You might worry about what will happen during the operation. You may wonder what the surgeon will find, and whether you’ll be in pain afterwards. It’s common to feel alone at this time, and to be anxious about the future.

This article will help you to understand the physical and emotional effects of surgery. You’ll also learn some ways to cope with the after-effects of cancer surgery — including what you can do to manage pain.

Physical effects of surgery

When you wake up after the operation, you may start to feel some pain. This pain might come from the area around the incision; it could also come from the inside of your body as well. The good news is that surgical pain can be treated. It doesn’t have to get in the way of your recovery. Below are some suggestions to cut down on your surgical pain.

How to reduce the pain from surgery

  • Be prepared. Before the operation, talk to your surgical and anesthesia teams about how they will take care of your pain. Ask what problems to expect after the operation and how these issues will be handled. For example, breast surgery may cause pain in the wall of the chest, pain in the arm, and even swelling if lymph glands have been removed. Colon cancer surgery may shorten the bowel (intestine), which can result in cramping pain and diarrhea. Prostate cancer surgery can cause groin and lower abdominal pain.
  • Talk about your pain. After the surgery, you’ll be asked to rate the amount of pain that you’re feeling, on a scale of 0-10: Zero means no pain, and ten is the worst pain that you can imagine. This rating will help your caregiving team know how to best treat you. You’ll need to say whether you’re feeling a dull, burning, or sharp pain; if the pain comes and goes; and whether there’s anything that makes you feel better (or worse). Don’t suffer in silence if your pain gets bad: Let your nurse know. It’s much easier to take care of pain when it first starts, than it is to treat overwhelming pain later on.
  • Understand how to care for yourself at home. When you go home after surgery, there may be some equipment that you’ll need to use (such as colostomy or ileostomy pouches after intestinal surgery), or dressings that will have to be changed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help as you learn to do these tasks. Practice with your nurse at the hospital until you’re completely comfortable. If you think that you’ll need help at home, ask for a visiting nurse referral.

Emotional effects of surgery: the pain of suffering

It’s common to be afraid of surgery, especially when it’s because you have cancer. Some people worry about the loss of control over their bodies under anesthesia, or they just fear having an operation. Many are also anxious about learning the results of their operation: Finding out whether they have cancer after all, for example, or whether the surgeon was able to remove the whole tumor. In addition, each type of surgery may bring its own brand of worries:

  • Breast surgery: You might feel that losing or altering a breast changes you as a woman. These feelings could affect your sexuality, your confidence, and the way that you deal with other people.
  • Colon surgery: This type of surgery may affect how you feel about your body. It could make you less comfortable around other people, especially if it’s necessary to care for a colostomy.
  • Prostate surgery: You may worry that this surgery will cause you to lose bladder control or sexual function, without knowing whether these problems will be short- or long-term.

What you can do for the emotional pain of surgery

Realize that you are more than your body. You are still “you,” even if your body has changed, or parts of your body don’t work like they did before.

Ask for help from your caregiver, partner, friend, or family member the first time that you need to look at your wound.

Discuss any worries about sexuality with your partner, therapist, or doctor.

Recognize the healing power of time. Over the few weeks following surgery, the swelling will usually go down, the bruising will fade, and the scar will become less obvious. You’ll be able to move on with your life, even if it doesn’t feel that way right away.

Share your wide range of feelings with a professional, a cancer support group, or by writing in a journal. Even if your cancer has been found and treated, you may still feel grief, anger, shock, or resentment that this illness happened to you in the first place. All of these feelings are normal.


National Cancer Institute (2008). Pain Control. Retrieved 7/1/08 from

National Cancer Institute (2006). What you need to know about cancer – an overview. Retrieved 7/1/08 from