October is breast cancer awareness month and according to the CDC, about 42,000 women and 500 men die of breast cancer each year, out of 255,000 new cases in women and 2,300 in men. Women have 100 times the risk of developing breast cancer than men and breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in women worldwide.
Only 10% of breast cancers are associated with genetics and a family history. Other factors that may play a role in in increasing risk for breast cancer susceptibility include
- Increased age.
- Dense breast tissue may increase risk and/or make detection more challenging.
- High amounts of body fat may increase risk (especially after menopause).
- Exposure to estrogen (this includes transgender women undergoing estrogen therapy)
- Early menarche or late menopause
- Those who become pregnant later in life or do not become pregnant
- Drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco.
- Exposure to ionizing radiation (radiation treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or surviving a nuclear accident) can increase risk.
The good news is breast cancer numbers have been declining in recent years but women in the United States still have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. This is why many experts are searching for more options to boost breast cancer survival and prevent both diagnosis and recurrence.
Foods For Surviving Breast Cancer
There is no specific diet that is recommended for people with breast cancer and nutrition needs may vary depending on factors including other medical diagnoses, body weight, nutrient deficiencies, medications, along with any acute or chronic symptoms
Although the evidence linking nutrition and longevity may not be vast, doctors specializing in nutrition agree that including certain foods and avoiding others as part of an overall healthy diet increases the chance of survival.
It is always important to consult with your professional team, to support creating a nutrition plan specific to personal needs and overall health. General recommendations to maintain overall health whilst living with and overcoming breast cancer emphasize whole, nutrient-dense foods filled with healthy fats, lean proteins and fiber. These would include organic fruits and vegetables, humanely raised lean protein sources, wild-caught fatty fish and plant-based protein sources like lentils and nuts.
Vegetables & Fruits
Research shows that when people living with and overcoming breast cancer eat more fruits and vegetables (especially green leafy or cruciferous vegetables), their risk of survival may be higher.
Eating plant foods that contain specific phytochemicals support the body in fighting cancer. Although the precise effect of phytochemicals is still unknown, studies do show these compounds may help reduce cancer risk or recurrence.
Polyphenols are naturally occurring plant compounds that are found in many fruits (especially berries) and vegetables, and plant-derived beverages such as tea and coffee. They comprise five classes: flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans, stilbenes, and other polyphenols. Flavonoids and phenolic acids are the most common classes. Polyphenols might help prevent tumor cell growth and metastasis. They have also been proven to be beneficial for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, which are very common among breast cancer survivors.
Carotenoids (Beta Carotene)
Carotenoids are the natural pigments found in yellow and orange foods (such as carrots, sweet potatoes and squash) and dark leafy greens such as kale, spinach and Swiss chard. They may help prevent the growth of malignant tumors. Consumption of foods rich in carotenoids has been associated with a greater likelihood of breast cancer-free survival. These compounds can also minimize the negative effects of chemotherapy drugs without reducing the treatment’s impact on cancer cells
Cruciferous vegetables including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel’s sprouts and kohlrabi contain isothiocyanates which may have some role in helping stop the growth of breast cancer cells
Eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to an improved breast cancer prognosis. It appears that the EPA and DHA from fish inhibit the growth and reproduction of breast cancer cells as well as reduces the progression of breast tumors. Eating fish rich in omega-3 is also beneficial because it supports proper immune function and lowers a woman’s risk of heart disease and diabetes. Wild-caught, fatty fish include salmon, haddock, cod, halibut and sardines.
It’s important to note that the benefit from Omega 3 consumption corresponded only to the consumption of fish and not to fish oil supplements.
Women who consume a high-fiber diet probably boost their life expectancy. A high-fiber diet is associated with lower overall mortality in breast cancer patients. Fiber is beneficial because it can help women control their appetite and in turn support effective weight management Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, particularly after menopause, is widely viewed as one factor that influences survival.
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Foods To Avoid:
Alcohol. Drinking alcohol has been found to increase the risk of recurrence and mortality for existing breast cancer.
Sugar-sweetened beverages, juice and store bought smoothies. Consuming less processed and added sugar can support achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
Highly processed foods and refined grains. Studies have found an increase in breast cancer risk for people who eat ultra-processed foods.
Processed meat. The risk of both mortality from and recurrence of breast cancer is associated with lower levels of diet quality. Processed meats have corresponded with lower dietary quality.
For those with and those without a heightened genetic predisposition to breast cancer, lifestyle choices can help improve our chances of remaining cancer-free.
Maintaining A Healthy Body Weight
Breast cancer patients with a BMI ≥ 30 have both increased morbidity and mortality. Gaining more than 5% of initial weight during or after treatment, irrespective of initial weight, increases the risk of recurrence and reduces survival up to 500%..
Blood Glucose Management
Elevated blood glucose levels are associated with breast cancer risk in nondiabetic women. Furthermore, postmenopausal women with diabetes have been shown to have a slightly greater risk for breast cancer and breast cancer recurrence. As discussed in the Diabetes Mellitus section, fat buildup in muscle and liver cells contributes to insulin resistance and the risk of diabetes.
Women with breast cancer who exercise regularly both before diagnosis and after treatment are shown to have a significantly reduced chance of their cancer returning along with a decline in death from any cause (not just breast cancer). Even beginning an exercise program after diagnosis or treatment can be beneficial in surviving and thriving after breast cancer.
Exercise can also contribute to better blood glucose management and supports maintaining a healthy weight!
Results of a comprehensive study conclude that women who had reported sleeping 6 hours or less per night for 5 or more nights per week were twice as likely to die from breast cancer.
Read on here for more on developing a healthy sleep hygiene routine.
Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet when you have breast cancer has many health benefits. Not only can it make you feel better faster, but it can boost your immune system, keep you strong, optimize your treatment and support both surviving and thriving. If you’re considering trying a new diet or are challenged when it comes to creating and/or maintaining a healthy eating plan, talk to your health care professional.