Nutrition for women who are having surgery for ovarian cancer

Women who have ovarian cancer, (a cancer which develops in the two organs (ovaries) that produce eggs in women) are more likely to have difficulties with food and with eating a nourishing diet in comparison to women with other types of gynaecological cancers. One reason may be because the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be difficult to recognise. Women may have a lack of interest in food, feel full, feel sick or have a painful or swollen abdomen. Some women become thinner in parts of their bodies while becoming bigger around their abdomen due to an abnormal build up of fluid or large tumours. There may be no change in body weight or weight may increase, this can make it difficult to know which women are developing problems due to a poor food intake.

Women who are unable to eat and drink well are at risk of becoming malnourished and may then have more complications from the treatments for ovarian cancer than women who are not malnourished. It is recommended that people who are having difficulties with eating and drinking should be identified and helped when they receive hospital care. Currently, there is no agreed method for finding and treating nutritional problems for women with ovarian cancer.

In this review, the authors looked for studies (randomised controlled trials (RCTs)) from around the world to find out how women with ovarian cancer were assessed to see if they were eating and drinking well and what help they may be given with nutrition before or after surgery. A lack of information was found on this topic.

One RCT was found where a small group of women (40 including 35 with ovarian cancer) requiring extensive elective surgery for gynaecological cancer including surgery to the gut, were able to restart eating normal foods on the day after surgery. They were able to leave hospital earlier and did not have more complications in the month after surgery than women who were not allowed to resume eating normal foods until at least three days after the operation.

More studies are needed to confirm whether restarting normal eating one day after surgery can be recommended for women having surgery for ovarian cancer. More research is needed to provide information about how to identify and treat problems of malnutrition in women with ovarian cancer.

Authors' conclusions: 

Although women with ovarian cancer have been shown to be at risk of malnutrition, there is a lack of evidence derived from RCTs evaluating the identification, assessment and treatment of malnutrition during the perioperative phase of treatment. There is evidence from one small study that some women with ovarian cancer undergoing surgery with associated bowel resection may safely commence oral fluids within 24 hours of surgery and solid foods on the following day. Further research is required, including a RCT, to generate guidance concerning the treatment of malnutrition in this patient group.

Read the full abstract...

Women with ovarian cancer have been shown to be at significant risk of malnutrition with incidence rates described as being between 28% to 67%. Nutrition interventions may improve clinical outcomes positively, nutritional status or quality of life measures in this patient group.


This review was conducted to assess the effects of nutrition interventions during the perioperative period for women with ovarian cancer.

Search strategy: 

Electronic searches were conducted of the Cochrane Gynaecological Cancer Group Specialised Register, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL 2012, Issue 7), Medline (1946 to July week 4 2012), Embase (1980 to 2012 week 31), DARE (to 7th August 2012) AMED (1985 to April 2012), BNI (1992 to April 2012), CINAHL (to April 2012). We also searched trials databases, conference proceedings and related citation lists. Reference listings were handsearched. No restrictions were applied on language or date.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in which women 18 years and over with any stage of ovarian cancer, including recurrent cancer, were in the perioperative phase of treatment and received any type of nutrition intervention.

Data collection and analysis: 

Titles and abstracts were screened by two review authors with study selection discussed by a team. Pairs of review authors worked independently on data collection and compared findings.

Main results: 

A total of 4092 titles were screened and 14 full text reports reviewed; a single small study met the inclusion criteria. In the included RCT, 40 women (35 with ovarian cancer) had extensive elective surgery including bowel resection for treatment of gynaecological malignancy. Randomisation was made to either early oral feeding (oral fluids in the first 24 hours, solid foods on the following day) or to a 'traditional' feeding regimen where oral fluids and foods were delayed until there was evidence of bowel function. Most women in the early feeding group (14/18) were able to resume eating solid food one day after surgery. This resulted in a significantly shorter hospital stay with no increase in postoperative complications or change in quality of life measures in comparison with the women on the 'traditional' feeding regimen. The incidence of nausea and vomiting during the postoperative stay was similar in both groups and was noted in slightly more than half of the women. Overall survival was evaluated until 30 days following discharge from hospital; in this period, there was one death of a woman who had been in the 'traditional oral feeding' group, cause of death was not noted. We assessed risk of bias and found no high risk of bias was identified in the methodology and reporting of the included study, although there was an increased risk of bias due to the small size of the study in which not all of the women had ovarian cancer.