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Cancer Health Center

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Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Effects of Cancer Treatment on Nutrition

Surgery and Nutrition

Surgery increases the body's need for nutrients and energy.

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The body needs extra energy and nutrients to heal wounds, fight infection, and recover from surgery. If the patient is malnourished before surgery, it may cause problems during recovery, such as poor healing or infection. For these patients, nutrition care may begin before surgery.

Surgery to the head, neck, esophagus, stomach, or intestines may affect nutrition.

Most cancer patients are treated with surgery. Surgery that removes all or part of certain organs can affect a patient's ability to eat and digest food. The following are nutrition problems caused by specific types of surgery:

  • Surgery to the head and neck may cause problems with:
    • Chewing.
    • Swallowing.
    • Tasting or smelling food.
    • Making saliva.
    • Seeing.
  • Surgery that affects the esophagus, stomach, or intestines may keep these organs from working as they should to digest food and absorb nutrients.

All of these can affect the patient's ability to eat normally. Emotional stress about the surgery itself also may affect appetite.

Nutrition therapy can help relieve nutrition problems caused by surgery.

Nutrition therapy can relieve or decrease the side effects of surgery and help cancer patients get the nutrients they need. Nutrition therapy may include the following:

  • Nutritional supplement drinks.
  • Enteral nutrition (feeding liquid through a tube into the stomach or intestines).
  • Parenteral nutrition (feeding through a catheter into the bloodstream).
  • Medicines to increase appetite.

It is common for patients to have pain, tiredness, and/or loss of appetite after surgery. For a short time, some patients may not be able to eat what they usually do because of these symptoms. Following certain tips about food may help. These include:

  • Stay away from carbonated drinks (such as sodas) and foods that cause gas, such as:
    • Beans.
    • Peas.
    • Broccoli.
    • Cabbage.
    • Brussels sprouts.
    • Green peppers.
    • Radishes.
    • Cucumbers.
  • Increase calories by frying foods and using gravies, mayonnaise, and salad dressings. Supplements high in calories and protein can also be used.
  • Choose high-protein and high-calorie foods to increase energy and help wounds heal. Good choices include:
    • Eggs.
    • Cheese.
    • Whole milk.
    • Ice cream.
    • Nuts.
    • Peanut butter.
    • Meat.
    • Poultry.
    • Fish.
  • If constipation is a problem, increase fiber by small amounts and drink lots of water. Good sources of fiber include:
    • Whole-grain cereals (such as oatmeal and bran).
    • Beans.
    • Vegetables.
    • Fruit.
    • Whole-grain breads.
    See the Constipation section for more information.
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