Think about the foods you eat and how it can affect your body.

As we make a greater effort to support women in their quest to achieve and maintain comprehensive breast health, we realise that nutrition is one of the common areas of inquiry by patients diagnosed with breast cancer, or persons who are trying their best to prevent it. Nutrition is especially important, as it can also affect surgical and post-surgical outcomes for patients with breast cancer. In fact, patients who have adopted healthy lifestyles pre-diagnosis tend to have a much better prognosis and experience greater survival rates.

No doubt the issue of nutrition is a global one. This was one of the Hot Topics at the 9th Annual Royal Marsden Breast Cancer Meeting in London, which I attended. Although breast cancer care and treatments are very individualised, there are some facets of health and nutrition that provide immense benefits to our breast cancer patients. This includes patients from across the spectrum:

  • The newly diagnosed
  • Those preparing for surgery
  • Those having treatment (chemotherapy, radiation therapy or endocrine therapy)
  • Survivors

For persons undergoing chemotherapy, there are inherent challenges associated with these medications:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Taste changes
  • Inability to eat due to mucositis, etc.

In these instances, having guidance from your oncology team is useful. If this is you, I recommend you start a diary and document the changes you experience so that effective monitoring and appropriate interventions can be implemented. Gone are the days when a person undergoing treatment for breast cancer looks emaciated. These days, many cancer treatments induce weight gain, or lead to changes in one’s body composition, and this has significant implications, particularly after treatment.

Generally, patients who are overweight or obese are at an increased risk of developing cancer, as is commonly seen in post-menopausal breast cancer. Fortunately, we have evidence-based dietary guidelines that can help reduce risk and improve outcomes if followed. For example, in 2014, the WHO Research Fund evaluated 45 studies and assessed women at varying stages of treatment.

Body fat was assessed for women who had less than 12 months of treatment and prior to diagnosis, and those found to be overweight did not have a good prognosis for breast cancer. They experienced higher mortality rates and were more likely to develop secondary cancers. We therefore recommend that during treatment women aim to be as close as possible to their ideal weight.

Essentially, we’re emphatically stating is that being overweight is not good. As mentioned earlier, some treatments, mainly endocrine therapies, cause weight gain.  Whether you are interested in lowering your risk of developing cancer, or improving your outcome if a diagnosis has already been made, consider the following practical recommendations:

  • Exercise regularly to maintain lean body mass (within the limits or specifics set by your oncology team for persons undergoing breast cancer treatment).
  • Increase dietary fibre. Incorporating high-fibre foods into your diet tends to reduce all forms of mortality. Eat more plant-based foods, fruits and vegetables, and whole-grain cereals.
  • Exercise restraint in social situations, where food and drink are plentiful and the atmosphere is conducive to eating more.
  • Stay portion aware. Use smaller plates; the larger your plate, the more food you’ll put on it and the more you’ll eat. Conversely, by using a small plate, you’ll eat less.
  • When out shopping or dining out, limit your purchase of fast foods and convenience foods.
  • When going out for long periods, prepare yourself with pre-packaged healthy snacks such as baby carrots, nuts, granola or fruit.

Remember that good nutrition is an essential pillar of health, regardless of your diagnosis, and it is in your current and long-term interest to put only the best and healthiest foods into the body that houses your spirit.

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