Better health habits before surgery lead to better recovery


Surgery is often part of cancer treatment plans. For patients who have surgery, it may seem like the most important part of their treatment. Actually, it’s the recovery from surgery that a major impact on overall health.

That’s why Thomas Varghese, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), is advocating for patients to get in better health before surgery.

Dr. Varghese compares surgery to signing up for a marathon. You don’t just wake up one day and run 26.2 miles—it takes preparation and conditioning. “A surgery is probably one of the most stressful impacts on the body you could have,” he says. “Yet the expectation is that you just sign up, and then show up for your surgery, and we'll get you through this.”

In 2012, Dr. Varghese helped develop a program called Strong for Surgery, which was recently rolled out nationwide by the American College of Surgeons. It encourages doctors to work with surgery patients before they operate to improve clinical outcomes after surgery.

Strong for Surgery focuses on making small changes in four target areas: improving nutrition, controlling blood sugar, stopping smoking, and optimizing medications. Making these changes, even just before surgery, can make a big difference in recovery, says Dr. Varghese. “A very short period of time—even a week or two—help a make a patient's health the best it can be before surgery.

Surgery patients at HCI also take part in the Precision Exercise Program (PEP). A physical therapist assesses their functional level of ability.

“In a way we’re optimizing patients, giving them the ability to recover from the surgery, and then ideally, have them in better shape after the recovery as well,” he says.

Thomasz Pentelenz is a patient of Dr. Varghese and a regular exerciser. He plays racquetball, swims, and goes to the gym often. Earlier this year, an MRI showed a mass in his lung, which turned out to be cancer that needed to be surgically removed.

Three months after his surgery, Thomasz says his endurance has lessened, but otherwise he’s as active as he was before surgery. “I think the longer you exercise before surgery, and the better shape you are in going into surgery, helps your body recover,” he says. “You have an easier time after surgery and you get back to physical condition faster.”

Dr. Varghese says that’s the attitude he’d love everyone to have. “Start small,” he says. “Walk 20 to 30 minutes a day. Just carve out some time, and you'll be better for the long run.”

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit