Ensuring Proper Nutrition Before Cancer Surgery

By Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD
Woman on Yoga Mat | Ensuring proper nutrition before cancer surgery

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Surgery may be used as treatment for many different types of cancer. These operations can take a toll on the body and your nutritional status may impact the outcome of the procedure.

Poor Nutrition May Impact the Outcome

Cancer patients with poor nutritional status typically require longer hospital stays and may experience more complications after surgery.

If your body has not been getting the nutrients it needs, you may have a more difficult time with healing and recovery. If you lose weight because you are not feeling well, weight loss may also compromise your ability to recover.

How to Learn About Your Current Nutritional Status

Before surgery ask your health care provider for a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist, or RDN. An RDN can evaluate your current nutritional status and make recommendations on how to get your body ready for the upcoming surgery. Plus, a healthy eating plan may give you more energy.

The RDN may want to discuss:

  • Your health history
  • Medications and supplements, you may be taking, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs
  • Results of recent lab work
  • Your usual eating style and any recent changes in your appetite or eating patterns, including difficulties chewing or digestive issues
  • Food allergies or intolerances
  • Any religious or cultural practices that influence how you eat
  • Your current and usual physical activity level

The RDN may also perform a nutrition focused physical exam. This exam provides additional insight into your overall nutritional status. 

Individualized Eating Plan

Based on your cancer diagnosis and individual health concerns, the RDN will work with you to create an individualized eating plan.  The overall goal is to keep your body as strong as possible before and after surgery. These eating plans are designed to:

  • Provide the calories and nutrients you need
  • Help you to maintain your current weight
  • Boost your immune system and help reduce your risk for infection
  • Address any possible side effects of medications or treatments

Nutrition recommendations for someone preparing for cancer surgery may be different from the general guidelines for healthy eating.  For example, if you are struggling to maintain your weight or have lost muscle mass, the RDN may suggest a higher calorie meal plan or recommend focusing on certain foods to increase your protein intake. For patients who are struggling to meet their calorie and protein needs, RDNs may suggest oral nutrition supplements to help meet these needs.

Certain medications may also impact what and when you eat. Some medications can affect the absorption of certain nutrients. Thus, the RDN may review with you what medicines to take with or without food.

The RDN may also provide tips concerning overall balanced eating. For example, stocking your kitchen with healthful foods. If you do not wish to cook, the RDN may suggest some ready-to-eat food options based on your individual needs and preferences. Or, suggest that you ask friends and family members to help with meal prep during this time.

Some cancer patients may develop lactose intolerance. Diarrhea, gas, bloating and other stomach discomfort are common symptoms which may occur after consuming dairy products. If you develop problems with dairy products or other foods, the RDN can help you identify alternative foods to meet your nutrition needs.

Being physically active throughout the day may help fight the fatigue caused by cancer. Being active also may help stimulate appetite, keep bowels regular and build strong muscles. Talk to your health care provider about how to get started and what an appropriate level of activity is for you.

Where Do You Find a Nutrition Expert?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a searchable directory of RDNs. The “Find an Expert” feature lets you search by zip code and expertise area, such as cancer and oncology to locate a list of RDNs in your area.

Find an Expert

Need serious help making a plan? The nutrition experts in our professional membership are ready to help you create the change to improve your life.

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