A person may be able to return to their typical activities around 3 weeks after surgery. Appetite loss is typically the hardest adjustment, and most people adapt to the changes in their body and new diet up to 6 months after an esophagectomy.

An individual’s recovery after esophageal cancer depends on the type of surgical procedure they have to treat the condition.

Surgery to remove some or most of the esophagus is called an esophagectomy. It is a common operation that a surgeon can perform in different ways. No matter what technique a surgeon uses, it is a complex procedure that requires a long hospital stay.

Most people who have surgery recover and return to their typical routine 2–4 months after the operation. However, certain factors, such as postoperative complications, can prolong the recovery time.

This article explains the recovery time for esophageal cancer surgery, including factors that influence the healing period. It also includes recovery tips for after surgery.

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After an individual has an esophagectomy, they are likely to remain in the hospital for 7–10 days. However, they may need to stay longer if they experience complications.

A person can often return to their typical activities a few weeks after surgery. However, it can take months to adjust to the changes in their body and eating habits.

In some cases, it can take up to 1 year for a person to fully recover.

An individual’s recovery time depends on the type of esophageal cancer surgery they have. Other factors, such as the associated risks for each type of surgery, can also influence recovery time.

A minimally invasive esophagectomy can be less complex because the procedure involves removing parts of the esophagus through smaller incisions.

However, as with any surgery, the following complications may affect a person’s recovery time:

  • Postoperative bleeding: This is a short-term reaction, though extreme blood loss may require a person to have further treatment, such as a blood transfusion.
  • Blood clots in the legs: A blood clot may form in a vein due to long periods of inactivity. Further treatment in the hospital and medications to treat the clot can prolong recovery.
  • Heart attack during surgery: Immediate treatment for a heart attack can result in a longer hospital stay, or even surgery, which can delay recovery.
  • Stroke during surgery: Strokes that occur during surgery can lead to long-term disability or even death.

An open esophagectomy involves a surgeon operating through one or more large incisions in a person’s neck, chest, or abdomen.

Influencing factors that are more specific to this procedure and can affect the recovery time include:

  • Lung complications: Conditions such as pneumonia can lead to a longer hospital stay.
  • Injury to nearby organs: This can lead to more serious problems. It will require close monitoring and possibly further treatment.
  • Leakage from the esophagus or stomach: A person may require another operation to fix the leak.
  • Esophageal or stomach narrowing: A person may experience swelling problems and may need a follow-up procedure to correct the narrowing.

Once a person returns home after surgery, they will likely have some pain and discomfort. Additionally, their eating and drinking habits will likely change due to their stomach being smaller.

These recovery tips can help an individual slowly build up their strength and appetite before they are ready to restart their routine activities:

  • Exercising: Gentle exercise, such as regular walks, can gradually help increase a person’s energy level and build up their strength.
  • Avoiding strenuous activities: Limiting activities such as heavy lifting, shopping, driving, and vacuuming for at least 2 months allows the wound time to heal.
  • Managing dietary changes: A person may wish to work with a dietitian to create an eating plan that accommodates appetite loss and dietary changes. This can help avoid dumping syndrome symptoms, such as weight loss, cramping, and diarrhea. Regularly eating smaller, balanced meals, as well as drinking nutritious fluids, can also help appetite changes.
  • Avoiding alcohol and smoking: Alcohol and smoking can exacerbate postoperative side effects.

It is important for an individual to follow all postoperative instructions given by their doctor and to speak with their doctor before starting to exercise or doing other strenuous activities.

The following are questions people frequently ask about life after esophageal cancer surgery.

Can a person live a typical life after esophagectomy?

After an esophagectomy, the extent to which a person can live a typical life depends on several factors, such as the individual’s overall health status and the type of procedure performed.

It is common for people to experience some side effects, such as difficulty swallowing, acid reflux, and fatigue. However, a person and doctor can manage many of these problems with medication, dietary changes, and other therapies.

A person may also need to make some lifestyle adjustments, such as avoiding certain foods or activities that could worsen their symptoms.

How long will a person need a feeding tube after esophageal cancer surgery?

After surgery, most people cannot eat or drink. They may need a jejunostomy tube (J-tube) to deliver food, hydration, and medication straight to their stomach or intestines.

Doctors consider J-tubes long-term feeding tubes, because people who have an esophagectomy experience significant appetite loss and difficulty swallowing. As a result, they are likely to rely on artificial feeding for 1 month or sometimes longer.

An esophagectomy is a major operation that can have significant effects on a person’s life.

Most people are able to resume their typical activities with appropriate postoperative care. This means most people live typical lives after an esophagectomy.

It is important for an individual to follow all postoperative instructions given by their doctor. They should also speak with their doctor about individual recovery times and when they can resume their typical activities.