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After your pancreatic cancer surgery

Recovering from pancreatic surgery takes time and you will probably feel very weak after your operation. It may take several months to a year to fully recover. This will be different for each person.

Some hospitals have enhanced recovery programmes which aim to get you eating, drinking and moving about as soon as possible. They also aim to speed up your recovery and reduce the risk of problems after surgery, such as chest infections and blood clots. 

When you wake up after surgery

You will be in the intensive care unit (ICU) or high dependency unit (HDU) for the first 24-48 hours. This is so that the nurses can monitor you closely.

You will have had some tubes or drains put in during the operation, including:

  • tubes in a vein to give you fluids or medicine
  • tubes under the skin near your wound to drain off any fluid
  • a thin tube (catheter) through your urethra (the tube you pass urine through) into your bladder, to drain urine
  • sometimes, a tube either in your nose or your tummy. This is to drain the stomach and may be used to feed you later.

You may have an epidural, which gives painkillers through a drip in your spine. Read about pain relief. The tubes will be removed as soon as they are no longer needed.

You will be given antibiotics to prevent infections. You will also have an injection every day to prevent blood clots. Once the doctors are happy with how you are recovering, you will be moved from the ICU or HDU to a ward.

You will spend 5-10 days recovering on the ward. But you may spend longer than this in hospital, depending on your surgery and whether there are any problems.  

Eating and drinking after pancreatic surgery

For the first few hours after surgery you won’t be able to eat or drink anything. You may be able to have a few sips of water a few hours afterwards. You will slowly start to drink and eat normally again, starting with clear fluids such as water and squashes. You can then try other drinks, including fruit juice, tea, coffee and milk. Next you can try softer foods, which you should chew well. Once you are managing this, you can slowly have more normal food. Ask your doctor or nurse about when you can start eating.

At some hospitals you may be fed through a tube to begin with. This is to give your digestive system time to recover. You may have either a tube that passes up your nose into the small intestine or through a small hole made in your tummy – this is called enteral feeding. Not all hospitals use feeding tubes, and it might depend on your situation.

How quickly you start eating and drinking will depend on your recovery. Some people may not be able to start eating very quickly. If you have a leak from where the pancreas, bile duct or stomach are joined to the small intestine you may need to have food into a vein (intravenously) for a few days.  

You should see a dietitian after your surgery. They can give you advice on what to eat, maintaining or putting on weight, and using pancreatic enzyme supplements. They can also help with diabetes. If you are being fed through a tube or into a vein, a dietitian will manage this.

Going to the toilet

If you have had a catheter put in it will be taken out once you can get out of bed to use the toilet. If you have an epidural for pain relief the catheter will be removed after the epidural has been taken out.

Your bowels won’t start working normally for a few days. When they do you may have runny poo (diarrhoea), or constipation (problems emptying your bowels). But this should settle down. Constipation can be caused by the pain relief medicine.

Your poo may also be pale, oily and smell horrible. This happens because the pancreas can’t produce enough enzymes to digest the fat in your food. You should be given pancreatic enzyme supplements to help with this.

Your wound

You will have stitches or surgical staples closing the wound. The nurses will check and change your dressings regularly. They will tell you how to look after the wound and keep it clean when you go home.

Your stitches or staples will be removed about 10-14 days after your operation. If you have left hospital, this will be done at your GP surgery or by a district nurse. The area around your wound may be sore for a few weeks. You can take painkillers for this.

There is a risk that your wound could become infected. If this happens, the wound may look swollen, red around the edges or may ooze a smelly, yellow liquid (pus). If you think it’s infected see your GP. They will help keep your wound clean and give you treatment if needed.

What happens before your operation?

Find out about the different types of surgery for pancreatic cancer

Read about the advantages, disadvantages and risks

Recovering from surgery

Read about the side effects of surgery and how these are managed

Find out about check-ups after surgery

Peer support for people having surgery

Published April 2019

Review date March 2021

Information Standard