Surgery side effects

The side effects associated with surgery will depend on the type of surgery that your child has.

Your surgeon will explain what to expect before your child has the operation and check that you understand the effects. Sometimes the extent of the surgery will depend on what they find during the operation, when they can see the cancer. Ask as many questions as you need to. You can talk to other people on your child’s care team too.

Dealing with scars

When your child has surgery for cancer, it might leave them with permanent changes to their appearance. Having a scar is common. Here are a few tips:

  • Remember, scars always look worse straight after surgery when they are red and obvious. They often fade with time. 
  • Scarring can be difficult to accept and adjust to. If your child feels low in confidence about their appearance because of scarring, think about suggesting they speak to a psychologist or counsellor (speak to your child’s care team about this)
  • Skin camouflage products and services to help cover up scars are available. Speak to a member of your child’s care team about how to access them, or contact the charity Changing Faces.

Pain and infection

Your child may experience some pain in the area that was operated on, but they should be given painkillers to reduce this. Talk to somebody in your child’s care team if they are still uncomfortable.

Your child may also be given antibiotics to prevent infection to the wound, and be taught breathing and leg exercises to reduce the risk of chest infections and blood clots.

For more information about surgery and side effects associated with the treatment of your particular type of cancer, see our types of cancer section.

The impact of life-changing surgery

Sometimes the lasting effects of surgery might be very hard to come to terms with. You and your child will get lots of support from their care team before and after the operation.

If your child has undergone a surgical procedure that has significantly affected their appearance or mobility, they are likely to feel a range of emotions, from anger or confusion about why this has happened to them. The emotional impact of limb loss, for example, has often been compared to bereavement, so grief is normal.

They may also be worried being “different” to their peers and the impact on friendships. It may help to remind them that difference is normal – we all have different personalities, strengths and abilities. Friendships are about how two people get on, not physical differences, and true friends will accept and respect them for who they are.

Reinforce positive messages to boost their self-esteem by helping your child feel good about their body. Praise their efforts and always encourage them to pursue whatever they’re interested in. It’s important that they feel empowered, rather than limited by their body.

It might be a good idea to find some inspirational people to act as role models, or connect with other children or young people who have gone through a similar experience.

Communicating with school

It’s inevitable that your child will be asked questions at school. It’s always best to be led by what your child is comfortable with when dealing with how to manage reactions of classmates.

If your child is happy for people to know what has happened, the school could help with educating their peers about cancer and treatment with an aim to increase understanding and support for your child. Alternatively, your child may not want to share what they’ve been through, and that’s OK too.

Talk to the school to express your child’s wishes and make sure they’re fully aware of the support you’ll need – whether that’s practical help to enable your child to keep up with their routine or to provide emotional support. There’s plenty more guidance about this in Your child’s education.

Your emotions

It’s normal to experience all sorts of emotions – grief, anxiety, distress, guilt, relief. Feelings of sorrow will ease as you begin to see your child adapt and flourish. That’s not to say your child won’t experience future challenges but it’s about building resilience so you can overcome these together.

Look after yourself during this time and allow yourself the opportunity to connect with your feelings. You may find it helpful to look at our Taking care of yourself guide for parents and carers which explores different emotions, shares advice from other parents and practical ways you can help yourself.

Where next?

Updated November 2017, next review due 2019.

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