Exercise and Nutrition After Breast Cancer Surgery

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on February 29, 2024
5 min read

After you get a breast cancer operation, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. Good nutrition and exercise can help you regain your health.

Nausea and vomiting are common after surgery, and you’re even more likely to have these symptoms if you've also had chemotherapy or radiation. Other symptoms include a loss of appetite or desire to eat, and "wasting syndrome," when your body wastes away from lack of nutrition. It's often accompanied by weight loss and weakness.

To ease symptoms of nausea:

  • Eat several smaller meals throughout the day instead of three big ones.
  • Try protein shakes, yogurt, and liquid protein drinks instead of solid foods.
  • Eat simple soups, such as chicken with vegetables and broth.

Protein. Your body needs more of it than usual after your operation. It needs it to repair cells, fight infection, and heal incisions. Here's what you can do to get more:

  • Add protein powder or dry milk to meals.
  • Add grated cheese to vegetables, potatoes, rice, and salads.
  • Eat high-protein snacks such as almonds, peanuts, and cheese.
  • Right after surgery, boost your protein without worrying about calories. It will help you heal and get your strength back. If you need to lose weight, you can focus on that later.

Phytochemicals are nutrients in plants. Some have been studied for their cancer-fighting benefits and their ability to keep cancer from coming back.

Soy. Soybeans contain phytoestrogens. These are nutrients similar to the estrogen in your body. Sources of them include soybeans (edamame), tofu, soy milk, and miso soup. Some researchers think they can help protect against the kind of breast cancer that needs estrogen for its growth, but others don't. Ask your doctor whether eating one to three servings of soy a day would help you. It's possible it may interfere with hormone therapy or some other treatment.

Antioxidants . Many vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other foods have them. Good choices include broccoli, liver, carrots, blueberries, and mangoes. Antioxidants protect your cells from damage. Dietitians say you should eat a balanced diet with a variety of fresh foods to get them. It’s better for you than taking supplements.

Lycopene. This is one type of antioxidant. It puts the red in tomatoes and the pink in pink grapefruit. It might help fight breast cancer.

Beta-carotene. Carrots, apricots, yams, and other vegetables and fruits get their orange color from beta-carotene. Eating foods that have a lot of it may lower the risk of breast cancer returning, some studies suggest.

A registered dietitian can give you advice on the best diet and nutrition plan for you, but these general guidelines will get you started.

Eat low-fat protein, such as roasted chicken and baked fish, rather than steak, sausages, or other high-fat meats. Try to have five servings of a wide variety of vegetables and fruits each day.

Avoid processed meats linked to cancer. These include bacon, bologna, hot dogs, ham, and smoked meats.

Choose whole-grain bread and brown rice, rather than white bread and white rice.

Cut back on alcohol. Limit yourself to one drink a day if you're a woman or two if you're a man.

Talk to your doctor about any diet changes you're making, especially when recovering from surgery or when getting chemotherapy. You don't want to starve your body of important nutrients that it needs to recover.

A good cardio workout improves your self-esteem, mood, and health. And after breast cancer surgery, you’ll need to be active. Being overweight is linked to breast cancer coming back. Losing extra pounds through exercise may help you restore your health and improve your chances of avoiding more cancer.

Fatigue often lingers after surgery. It may be worse if you've also had chemotherapy and radiation. Exercise can boost your energy. Most experts say some form of regular exercise is good, even if you start with short walks around the block.

Protect yourself. For the first days and weeks after your surgery, you’ll need to focus on protecting your incision and any other tender areas. Don't carry heavy things like children or groceries.

Talk with your doctor before you start exercising. Once your doctor says you can, start slowly and carefully. Think about seeing a physical therapist experienced with breast cancer. A therapist can help you improve your range of motion, strength, and flexibility.

If you had a lumpectomy to remove a breast lump, or surgery to remove part of your breast (a partial mastectomy), you can get back to exercise fairly quickly with your doctor's OK.

If you had surgery to remove the lymph nodes under your arm, you're at higher risk of swelling of the arm, called lymphedema. This is especially true if you get radiation. That's because fluids can't drain the way they used to from your arm. Lymphedema can happen any time after surgery or radiation. So you may need to avoid things like tennis, running, and some styles of yoga that use your arms for several weeks. You'll need to protect your arm from injury, so you may need to avoid things like tennis, running, and some styles of yoga for some time.

If you choose to have breast reconstruction, you may have several surgeries ahead of you. That may mean you'll have to put off exercise for longer.

Choose an exercise you enjoy. The best workout for you is the one you'll stick with and enjoy -- and one that's safe, given your type of breast cancer surgery. Start with brisk walking. Or use a stationary bike so you can sit upright without leaning on your arms. Other exercises that don't require you to put weight on your arms include tai chi, qigong, and gentle yoga.

Later, add more vigorous exercise that uses your arms more. You might opt to run, swim, cycle, hike, do more intense yoga, and other aerobic exercises. Multiple trials have demonstrated that exercise improves aerobic fitness, strength, quality of life

Aim to get 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week -- unless your doctor says not to. Go slowly and safely in the months after your surgery.