A Word About Pink October
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month! In honor of this important occasion, I’m writing a four part series on wellness for breast cancer survivors, starting with the facts about nutrition after breast cancer. I’ve got the what, why, and how about eating in survivorship for all you breast cancer survivors out there - so read on!
Intro to Eating After Breast Cancer
All breast cancer survivors can benefit from eating healthfully. There is reliable data to guide recommendations for general healthy eating after breast cancer. Studies show that breast cancer survivors who eat well live longer than those who do not. However, there is not sufficient data to say this or that specific food conveys the benefit of longevity. More likely, the general health benefits of well-balanced, healthy diets are responsible for better outcomes. For example, diets rich in plant sources are linked to healthy body weight which lowers your risk for problems like heart disease and diabetes.
I see an added benefit of eating healthfully for breast cancer survivors; it’s the opportunity to feel in control over your life after treatment. There is comfort in knowing the effort to eat mindfully and choose foods wisely will make a positive difference for your future health - you are in charge of making the decisions here. That’s power.
What to Eat After Breast Cancer, Exactly.
So, despite the above explanation about a general, healthy diet, you still want specifics, right?
That’s what I thought!
Here is a list of exactly what “healthy diet” means for breast cancer survivors:
High fiber foods (veggies, nuts, legumes/beans)
Lots of plant-based foods (mostly veggies, some fruit)
Foods rich in good fats (Omega 3s in fish, nuts, olive oil, avocado)
Animal protein foods that are low in saturated fats (fish, white meat chicken)
The food types listed above give your body exactly what it needs to function as nature intended. Given these foods, your cells will live in a harmonious environment, free from inflammation and damaging molecules, and receive the molecular tools they need to keep their DNA in tip top shape. This is why good nutrition is so important in terms of cancer risk. If cells aren’t happy, they simply go astray.
So exactly what does this look like? I could write lists and lists of foods that fit into these categories, but I’m not sure lists bring you closer to a healthy meal.
Instead, I’ve created Brio’s FREE Food for Pink October Meal Plan! It’s a six day meal plan, complete with recipes, shopping lists, and nutrition information for Breast Cancer Survivors. The Food for Pink October Meal Plan is a great example of the kinds of food that will keep you healthy for years to come. Download it FREE by clicking the button below:
What Not to Eat After Breast Cancer
A High Fat Diet
Two large studies (WINS and WHEL) looked at lowering fat intake after early stage breast cancer diagnosis. One study found that women on a low-fat diet had a small reduction in their risk of cancer recurrence, but it’s unclear whether the effect was caused by weight loss or the diet alone. The other study did not find a link between a low fat diet and cancer recurrence.
The key with fat intake is it leads to obesity and when it comes to cancer recurrence, obesity is a real risk factor. For a detailed look at obesity and cancer survivorship, read Brio’s blog post on the topic here.
Refined, Processed Carbs
Diets high in sugar cause generalized inflammation in the body and contribute to obesity, which is a set up for cells to be unhealthy and vulnerable to cancerous changes. For this reason, processed, high sugar foods should be avoided. For a detailed discussion on how sugar effects cancer, read Brio’s blog post on the topic here.
Low Fiber Diet
Dietary fiber consumption is significantly associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer, particularly in postmenopausal women. Thus, eating a low fiber diet is something to be avoided. A general recommendation for fiber intake is 30-40 grams per day.
No dietary supplements (including vitamins, minerals, and herbal products) have been shown to lower the risk of breast cancer recurrence. People spend a lot of money on supplements unnecessarily because supplements are simply not indicated for most cancer survivors. Additionally, the supplement industry is largely unregulated and you can never really know what those capsules actually contain.
There is an exception: some survivors have actual nutritional deficiencies and of course in this instance, supplement should be given at the direction of your medical team.
Jury’s Still Out
In terms of cancer recurrence, the jury is still out on the consumables below. It must be said however that for general good health, they should be avoided or at least consumed in moderation.
Lotsa Red and Processed and Cured Meats
Studies have linked eating a lot of red and processed meats with increased risk of colorectal, prostate, and stomach cancers. Additionally, some research suggests cooking meats at high temperatures creates chemicals that might increase the risk of some types of cancer. It’s thus recommended you limit intake of processed and red meats and discourage cooking these and other higher fat sources of protein at high temperatures.
No studies have looked at the effect of processed meat, meat cooked at high temperature, or meat in general on cancer coming back or getting worse (progressing or growing), but Breast Cancer Survivors may want to consider this when considering overall healthy food choices.
It’s plain and simple - alcohol increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer. It’s less clear if alcohol effects your risk of recurrence.
Drinking alcohol can raise the levels of estrogen in the body, which in theory could increase the risk of breast cancer coming back. But there is no strong evidence from studies to support this. Again - it’s recommended that for general health and theoretical recurrence risk that women limit their alcohol intake to a maximum of one alcoholic drink per day.
Soy foods contain isoflavones - compounds that can have estrogen-like effects on the body. There have been concerns that these estrogen-like affects may encourage cancer growth or recurrence, but some recent studies have not found soy intake affects breast cancer recurrence. Evidence regarding the effects of soy or isoflavone supplements is not as clear.
I know this post has tons of information about eating after breast cancer, but hopefully The Food for Pink October Meal Plan helps put it in perspective a bit. Remember - it’s more about bounty than it is about deprivation - if you add the good stuff to your diet, it’ll eventually just squeeze out the bad stuff and you’ll be feeling so great, you won’t feel deprived of the junk food cravings you once had.
And if you’re already eating a healthy diet, you’re doing the best thing you can do for your future vitality!
Eat pink, Survivors.
P.S. As always, the advice given above is informational and not intended to supplant the advice of your medical team. It is certainly not intended for anyone with special nutritional needs, so please consult your dietitian or cancer care team for specific guidance tailored to your individual case.