Feature Archive

Breast Cancer Survivors: Nutrition and Fitness Tips

Eat foods that are cancer-protective to help prevent a recurrence, and get back into exercise to lose extra pounds.

By Gina Shaw
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

A bout with breast cancer is likely to leave you eager to do all you can to prevent a recurrence. You may be frustrated that there's only so much about cancer prevention you can control.

But you do have control over one area of life: your diet. Eating well can help you take off any weight you may have gained during breast cancer treatment. It may also help protect you in the future from a breast cancer recurrence.

True, what doctors know about your diet's power to ward off a cancer recurrence, as opposed to preventing cancer in the first place, is limited, says Melanie Polk, RD, Director of Nutrition Education at the American Institute for Cancer Research.

"We know that a diet that's high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, and low in fat and high in fiber is cancer-protective," she says. "But a lot of these factors have not been studied in detail with regard to cancer survivors. Still, there's every reason to believe that dietary factors that are cancer-protective to begin with would be protective as well for cancer survivors."

While much more research is needed, it's a given that a good diet boosts overall health. It also clearly helps protect against heart disease and diabetes. It can't hurt you, and it may help you stay strong for years to come long after your breast cancer treatments are over.

Go for a Diet Rich in Plant Foods, Fish, and Lean Protein

Foods known to have cancer-prevention benefits:

  • Whole wheat breads. Forget the anti-carb mantra: whole grains (such as wheat and brown rice) have many potent antioxidants, which research has linked to cancer prevention. In fact, one recent study found that antioxidants' cancer-fighting abilities may be equal to the punch packed by fruits and vegetables. So, make sure your bread is 100% whole wheat. Also try whole wheat pasta, and ask for the brown rice at your next Chinese meal.
  • Carrots, winter squash, pumpkins, apricots. Orange foods (no, not macaroni and cheese) are rich in carotenes, which have been linked to decreased risk of lung and oral cancers and may slow the progression of other cancers.
  • Spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, Swiss chard, and other dark green vegetables. They also boast plenty of carotenes, along with fiber and folate. Two large studies suggest a relationship between increased folate intake and decreased breast cancer risk.
  • Garlic, onions, scallions, leeks, and other vegetables from the allium family. Studies in animals show that allium vegetable components can slow the progression of several cancers, including breast cancer.
  • Beans -- lentils, peas, kidney beans, navy beans, and so on. Beans are rich in fiber, and also in a certain kind of antioxidant that appears to slow tumor growth.

As a breast cancer survivor, you'll also want to make sure that your diet contains plenty of low-fat protein, such as cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel), beans, nuts, and white meat chicken or turkey. Protein rebuilds muscle and tissue, something that's particularly important when your body has undergone the assault of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

What about soy? Some researchers once thought soy could be a cancer cure-all. Then, doctors became concerned that the phytoestrogens in soy might pose a risk for women whose tumors were estrogen receptor-positive.

"At this point, it doesn't look like there's any tremendous protection, or any tremendous harm, from a moderate amount of soy in your diet as a breast cancer survivor," says Polk. "If you like soy, go ahead and enjoy it-in moderation. I stress that because there are some women out there eating soy milk three times a day, having a soy burger for lunch and tofu for dinner and soy nuts for a snack. That's not moderation."

Remember, says Polk, there's no one magic food. "In fact, we're beginning to see evidence that phytochemicals and other cancer-fighting ingredients work together, synergistically," she says. "It may not be the lycopene in tomatoes or the folate in spinach by themselves, but a whole variety of elements that work together as a team to help fight off disease."



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