Living and Eating after GI Surgery

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Beyond Blue Food Issue
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Connie Rizzo, MEd, RD, LD, is a registered and licensed dietitian who works full time at the Mercy O’Reilly Cancer Center. She received her bachelor’s degree in dietetics from Kansas State University and a master’s degree in education from Drury University. She has served in various local, state, and national dietetic offices, and published and presented innovative nutrition research and education. In addition to her work at Mercy, Connie has taught numerous classes, in-person and online at Missouri State University and the University of Phoenix. Connie enjoys blending healthful food with great taste. She explored fresh ideas by completing a professional chef course in world flavors and cultures at The Culinary Institute of America® in Napa Valley, California.

Connie Rizzo, MEd, RD, LD, medical nutrition therapist at Mercy Cancer Center in Springfield, Mo., knows firsthand the challenges related to eating following extensive gastrointestinal surgery. More than 18 years ago, she faced a gastrointestinal (GI) surgery where part of her small intestine and colon were removed, and the procedure has fueled her passion to help patients with their diet and nutrition needs. 

Her surgery was not because of colorectal cancer, but it resulted in substantial digestive issues with food- and fiber-related concerns. Connie shares her personal experience along with her knowledge as a dietitian to give patients hope, offer empathy, and provide real-life ideas about how to approach foods and fiber after surgery. 

“After my gastrointestinal surgery, I started eating a low amount of fiber (about 5 grams a day) and fiber foods that contained more soluble than insoluble fiber while still taking some antidiarrheal medication. I soon realized that I might have days when a food I tolerated one day seemed like a challenge another day. However, I was determined as a cancer dietitian to explore how to include foods that I loved and that would contribute to my health!"

To patients who may be concerned about eating more fiber, she adds:

"I suggest adding fiber foods, one new fiber-containing food a day to check for tolerance, and keep a journal of what works. This method helped me. If tolerated, you can try another fiber food and work up to an amount your body can handle.

What the Fiber?!

We are seeking the perfect poop: Not too hard. Not too soft. Just right. It sounds like a fairytale.

Connie also has experience with probiotics, something she says helped her become less reliant upon medication.

"I also found that taking a probiotic each day allowed me to have more formed stools, and I was able to decrease my antidiarrheal medication over time. So, I instruct my clients about the use of probiotics. 

Today, Connie’s diet is full of fibrous foods. She is a testament that those who’ve had GI surgery can add them back.

“There are very few fiber foods I cannot eat now; however, I can eat a very small amount of broccoli only if it is blanched, and cooked broccolini works better for me. I soon recognized the timing and amount of fiber at a meal or snack was important; fresh fruits are better mid-day than first thing in the morning for me. But the wonderful thing is I CAN include healthy, fiber foods, and the farther I got from my surgery, the better it got!

To patients struggling, she offers this advice:

"Some days may feel hopeless or frustrating, especially if something that worked one day doesn’t work the next. But don’t ever feel like you need to live with chronic constipation or diarrhea. Don’t feel like you need to avoid fiber foods because they go right through you. I understand the hesitancy in trying fiber foods; however, by attempting small changes with the suggestions we have discussed here, improvement can be attainable."

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Food. We can't live without it, but for many in the colorectal cancer community, it's hard to live with it. Yet as doctors, nutritionists, and research data all say: Diet and nutrition play an essential role in cancer prevention and treatment. Food is a topic we can't ignore.

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