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Nutrition strategies to help patients recover after surgery

CTCA

blog dietitian food

Recovering from cancer surgery can be challenging, especially if you are unable stay nourished and strong. Many people experience a loss of appetite, and side effects such as pain and nausea can limit their ability and desire to eat.

Jason Stevens, MA, RD, CSO, LD, a clinical oncology dietitian, says working with a dietitian before and after a surgery can help patients maximize their nutrition intake.

“Believe it or not, recovery from surgery actually begins before the procedure,” he says. “Meeting with a nutrition team prior to surgery is essential to speeding the patient’s post-operative recovery.”

A few examples of recommendations the team may make prior to surgery include improving physical activity to boost the immune system or increasing protein intake or other specific nutrients essential for healing.

“The body needs to be well equipped going into surgery to be well prepared for recovering after the surgery,” emphasizes Stevens. But he cautions, it’s important to follow the surgical team’s instructions regarding what to eat and/or drink prior to a procedure. Many patients are told to limit their food and beverage intake in the day(s) leading up to a procedure.

Stevens often advises patients, such as those getting ready to have extensive oral surgery, to eat smaller and more frequent meals and snacks like protein shakes or nutritional drinks. He says, “Patients may experience trouble chewing or swallowing foods with certain textures, so we may focus on softer foods or liquids to meet their nutritional needs. We might also plan for high-protein foods at each meal and snack to help rebuild healthy tissue and maintain lean body mass during recovery.”

“With all patients we try to maximize nutritional intake by mouth first, but for some patients this isn’t feasible,” says Stevens. “Perhaps they have had such an extensive operation that their body’s demands simply cannot be met by what they can eat by mouth, or they’ve undergone a gastrointestinal surgery that’s altered their digestion and absorption of nutrients. These cases require patients to receive alternative forms of nutrition.”

Nutrition can be provided through a feeding tube that’s placed in the stomach or small intestine (enteral nutrition) or through an IV (parenteral nutrition). Stevens says a major factor the team considers is whether the gut is functional. If so, enteral nutrition may be an appropriate option. Parenteral nutrition delivers nutrients directly into the bloodstream and is useful for patients who can no longer absorb nutrients through the gut. It requires close monitoring and care.

Stevens adds, “Although receiving alternative nutrition sounds intimidating, a patient’s care team (including a registered dietitian) can help make this decision easier by explaining the options for each unique situation and monitoring progress along the way.”

Learn more about nutrition therapy.

Watch a Q&A on cancer nutrition.

See our infographic on why proper nutrition is important for cancer patients.

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