How to Eat for Recovery After Cancer Surgery

How to Eat for Recovery After Cancer Surgery

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

Good nutrition starts before surgery

It’s not just what you eat after surgery that helps your body recover. It’s what you’ve been eating prior to the procedure. That’s why so much of the science on this subject covers “perioperative nutrition”—i.e. your food habits before, during, and after surgery. 
To help your body store up critical resources in advance, try to eat a complete, healthy diet with a good balance of macronutrients (like protein, fat, and carbs) and micronutrients (like vitamin A, iron, and calcium). Your body will use those resources to repair wounds, rebuild damaged tissues, and close up your skin—all the hard work of healing.
The good news is that you don’t have to figure this out yourself! Ask your healthcare team to connect you with a dietitian. They’ll help you design a diet that’s right for you, along with time-tested advice on how to stimulate your appetite.

Protein matters

Protein is the main component of your body’s most important tissues—e.g. muscles, bone, organs, and skin. So if you want to heal, build, and strengthen those tissues, you need to eat plenty of protein. In fact, a 2017 study found that getting enough protein in the first 3 days after surgery helped patients leave the hospital 4 days sooner.
There’s plenty of debate around the optimal amount of protein to eat, but the current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is your body weight in pounds multiplied by 0.36. (So if you weigh 150 pounds, your protein target is 54 grams daily.) Some experts recommend far more than that.
So how do you get your protein? For many people in the US, eating more protein means eating more meat. But according to Harvard Medical School, it’s important to consider the protein “package”—the fats, carbs, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that it comes with. Plant sources of protein (like beans, nuts, lentils, seeds, tofu, and tempeh) tend to carry a lot of fiber and healthy micronutrients, making them great overall protein packages. 

Eat the rainbow

Plant foods—like fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains, and legumes—fight cancer. Research has shown that having more plants in your diet translates to a lower overall cancer risk, thanks to the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients they’re loaded with.
One easy way to make sure you’re getting a broad, healthy variety of plants in your diet? Try to buy a rainbow of foods. Think red peppers and cherries, orange carrots and squash, yellow bananas, green kale and broccoli, blueberries, purple beets and cabbage, and so on.
Eating the rainbow isn’t just a cute trick to get yourself feasting on a wide range of plants; there’s real science behind it! Many of the colorful pigments in fruits and veggies are antioxidants - chemicals that protect your body from free radicals, which are suspected carcinogens.

Fiber, fiber, fiber

Pain medications, anesthetics, anti-nausea medications, and lack of mobility can all slow down your bowel movements. That means surgery is a perfect storm for constipation. According to recent research, as much as 30% of women are severely constipated in the days after surgery.
Constipation is obviously unpleasant. It can cause stress, which is no good for healing or keeping your spirits high. And in some cases, it may be physically dangerous. Straining to have a bowel movement could reopen your surgical wound or compromise your stitches. So how do you avoid it?
First, get plenty of fiber and water. Whole fruits (like bananas, dates, apples, and plums), nuts and seeds (like almonds, peanuts, and pumpkin seeds), veggies (like carrots, celery, and kale), and whole grains (like brown rice and oatmeal) are all loaded with fiber. If you’re having trouble eating enough food to hit your fiber targets, consider taking an over-the-counter fiber supplement (like Metamucil) or asking your doctor about a prescription fiber supplement like Colace.
Second, try to stay active. Even a brief walk can get food moving through your intestines and keep your bowels moving. If you can’t leave your bed, moving your arms and legs can still improve your circulation and stave off constipation.

Stay hydrated!

Drinking enough water is crucial to almost every aspect of your physical and mental health. It regulates your body temperature, flushes waste from your system, aids in digestion, carries nutrients and oxygen through your body, and countless other vital functions. And according to the journal Advanced Tissue, proper hydration is essential for almost every aspect of wound healing. In other words, after surgery, it’s more important than ever to drink water (and then drink some more).
So how much water do you really need? The old “8 glasses daily” adage is a myth. According to Harvard Medical School, 4-6 cups of water daily is enough for most people. But that’s just a rough estimate! You may need much more—especially as you recover from surgery. Here are some tips for sneaking more water into your diet:
  • Invest in a reusable water bottle you love and keep it handy as you go about your day.
  • Add flavored seltzer into the mix (there are new flavors to try every day!)
  • Keep a pitcher of cucumber water or herbal tea in your fridge.
  • Try a hydration smoothie.
  • Watch for the earliest signs of dehydration. If your lips are dry, you probably need more water. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty!

What not to eat

Learning which foods to avoid is also a major part of post-surgery nutrition. As we said above, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that you skip red and processed meats. It’s also recommended that you avoid alcohol, which causes cancer even in small amounts. If you do drink alcohol, it’s recommended that you limit your consumption to two drinks daily for men and one drink daily for women.
Sugar-sweetened drinks (like soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks) also fall on the wrong side of the ACS guidelines. Although the link between sugar and cancer isn’t quite clear-cut, there is a strong correlation between sugar consumption and obesity. And obesity poses a serious risk to your recovery from surgery and ongoing health maintenance.
Finally, it’s advised that you avoid highly processed foods. That means prepackaged snacks, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals, candy, and anything else that doesn’t look anything like the plants or animals it was originally made from. These foods tend to be high in unhealthy fats, salt, and sugar - all of which are good for cancer patients to steer clear of.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at