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Vaginal cancer

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Potential side effects of surgery for vaginal cancer

Side effects can occur with any type of treatment for vaginal cancer, but not everyone has them or experiences them in the same way. Side effects of surgery will depend mainly on the:

  • type and location of the surgery
  • person’s overall health
  • effect of other cancer treatments (For example, irradiated tissue may not heal well after surgery.)

Side effects can happen any time during surgery. Some may happen during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after surgery. Most side effects go away after surgery. Late side effects can even occur months or years after surgery. Some side effects may last a long time or be permanent.

It is important to report side effects to the healthcare team.


Pain often occurs after surgery because of trauma to the tissue during surgery. Pain-relieving medications are used to control pain. It may take time for pain to decrease after surgery, depending on the procedure done, how the person heals and the person’s pain threshold. If pain persists or pain medications are not effective in relieving pain, check with the doctor or healthcare team.

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Nausea and vomiting

Nausea and vomiting can occur because of the effects of general anesthesia used during surgery. Medications are often given to prevent and control nausea and vomiting. Nausea and vomiting are usually temporary side effects and often go away a few days after surgery.

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Inability to urinate

Sometimes people have trouble urinating after surgery. This is called urinary retention. It may occur because of the pain after surgery, side effects from the procedure or the anesthetic or other drugs. How much the person urinates will be monitored for a short time right after surgery.

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Wound infection

Some people develop a wound infection after surgery. Sometimes tubes are placed into the wound to drain excess fluid. Antibiotics may be used to help prevent or treat an infection. Wound infections are a temporary side effect of surgery.

Report signs of infection to the doctor or healthcare team. These include redness, pus or foul-smelling drainage, increased swelling or tenderness of the incision site, and fever or chills.

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Lung problems

Lung problems after surgery can occur for a variety of reasons. Two main types of lung problems that may occur are infection (pneumonia) and a partially collapsed lung (atelectasis). Stopping smoking for at least 1 week before surgery helps lessen the risk of lung problems. Frequent deep breathing, coughing and turning in bed help reduce the chance of lung problems after surgery. Some patients may be given a special device called an incentive spirometer to encourage them to take deep breaths.

Report any acute shortness of breath, chest pain, fever or cough to the doctor or healthcare team.

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Blood clots

A blood clot in the leg is called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). A DVT can occur right after surgery because of decreased mobility and other factors. In the most serious cases, a blood clot can break away from the leg and travel to the lung. This is called a pulmonary embolus and causes shortness of breath and low oxygen levels.

Stopping smoking before surgery helps reduce the risk of blood clots. Frequent position changes, leg and ankle exercises and moving around soon after surgery also help reduce the risk of developing blood clots. Low doses of a blood thinner may be given to help reduce the risk of blood clots right after surgery.

Report any redness, swelling, pain or cramps in the calf of the leg to the doctor or healthcare team.

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Bleeding or hemorrhage can occur if a blood vessel is not sealed off completely during surgery or if the person has a blood clotting disorder. Nursing staff will frequently check bandages and drains for signs of excessive bleeding right after surgery. If bleeding occurs and is severe enough, the surgeon may have to take the person back to the operating room to control the bleeding.

A small amount of bloody drainage may be expected after surgery. Report excessive amounts to the doctor or healthcare team.

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Gastrointestinal problems

The intestines may be affected by anesthetic and may not work normally right after major surgery. This can cause a problem called paralytic ileus, in which the intestines become sluggish and their contents cannot move through. Fluids and foods taken by mouth are usually resumed gradually after surgery as the bowel function slowly returns to normal.

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Wound separation

The skin edges of a wound are usually held in place with stitches or staples until the incision is healed enough to remove them. The edges of the wound may separate after surgery (dehiscence). Minor separation of the skin edges may not be a serious problem. Separation of underlying muscle or fat can be more serious. It might result in a hernia later on (the protrusion of an organ or tissue through the abdominal wall). Strenuous physical activity should be usually avoided for 6 to 8 weeks after surgery to lessen the risk of wound separation.

Report gaping of the incision, an incision that doesn’t heal or a feeling that the incision has “given way” to the doctor or healthcare team.

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Lymphedema of the legs

When large numbers of lymph nodes have been removed by surgery, the normal flow and drainage of lymphatic fluid may be blocked. This leads to a build up of lymph fluid in the soft tissues and is called lymphedema. Swelling of the legs may occur due to removal of the lymph nodes in the pelvis. The goal of treatment is to prevent further fluid build-up and reduce swelling as much as possible.

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Scarring occurs as part of the healing process after surgery. Scars often are visible for a long time or are permanent, but they often fade over time.

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