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Reducing the Risk of Breast Cancer Recurrence through Diet and Lifestyle

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

As October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the UK, our goal is to support people facing breast cancer and raise awareness for those who may have less information about it. It's a month that goes beyond pink ribbons, dedicated to learning, sharing, and embracing positive change.


If you've faced breast cancer, it's only natural to want to seek ways to nurture your health and minimise the chances of cancer returning. In this article, we'll explore key strategies aimed at preventing the recurrence of breast cancer, empowering you to take control of your health with practical steps grounded in research and expert guidance. While research on breast cancer recurrence and diet is ongoing, current thinking aligns with the core dietary principles that are vital for cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, enhancing metabolic well-being, and promoting healthy ageing. These principles are important not only for addressing these health considerations but also for potentially reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence.


The practical steps we discuss encompass maintaining a healthy weight, incorporating regular exercise into your routine, and nourishing your body with a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and beneficial fats. By following these guidelines, you not only support your overall health but also embrace key principles that are central to ongoing research in the context of breast cancer recurrence.


Empowerment and resilience


Making changes to your nutrition and lifestyle is a positive step forward and can help you feel more in control. I encourage my clients to keep changes simple and realistic to avoid overwhelm and ultimately, build steps towards a healthy, nourishing, and sustainable diet and lifestyle. By gently embracing these positive changes, you are not only caring for yourself but also fostering a sense of empowerment and resilience in your healing process.


Key strategies to reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence


Let's focus on some tangible ways you can actively contribute to reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence.


Aim to be a healthy weight


Various studies have shown a consistent association between weight and breast cancer recurrence, as well as long-term survival. Excess weight has also been linked to a higher risk of lymphoedema, a condition that causes swelling in the arms due to a build-up of fluid in the tissues.


During breast cancer treatment, many people experience unintentional weight gain, which can be understandably frustrating. This weight gain is a complex issue influenced by various factors, making it a multifaceted process. Treatments can trigger menopausal symptoms, resulting in weight fluctuations and changes in body composition. Additionally, medications like steroids, commonly administered alongside chemotherapy, can lead to weight gain, fluid retention, shifts in appetite, and alterations in fat deposition. Hormonal therapies may also contribute to weight changes. These factors affect individuals differently, and the extent of their impact varies from person to person. Reduced activity levels during treatment can further compound any weight gain experienced.


It is crucial to understand that you are not alone in facing these common challenges; many individuals share similar experiences. Managing your weight during treatment shouldn't become an additional source of stress. If you are well enough and feel able, consider incorporating strategies that will help to limit weight gain through eating a nourishing diet and staying active. Remember, the timing of these efforts matters. Your well-being is a priority, and there's no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, approach this path with compassion and understanding, embracing a holistic approach to well-being that doesn't add unnecessary worries or burdens to your life.


Understanding the complexity of weight management during treatment is the first step. In the sections that follow, we'll shift our focus to practical strategies you can incorporate into your daily life to maintain a healthy weight and well-being.


It is important to recognise and acknowledge that weight management extends beyond simple calorie intake and energy expenditure. Our bodies are complicated, and various factors, such as genetics, environment, physical and mental health, sleep, stress levels, and digestive health, all play interconnected roles. Taking a 'whole person' approach to achieving a healthy weight is vital, especially for people navigating cancer.


Promoting gradual, steady weight loss is recommended because it allows you to maintain muscle mass, which is essential for your overall health. Rapid weight loss can lead to adverse effects like metabolic changes, a weakened immune system, nutrient deficiencies, and a diminished quality of life. By embracing a patient and sustainable approach to weight management, you prioritise not only your desired goals but also your well-being and long-term health.


Be physically active as part of your everyday life


Among breast cancer survivors, studies have found a consistent link between physical activity and a lower risk of breast cancer recurrence. Being physically active is also associated with a lower risk of dying from breast cancer, as well as a lower risk of dying from any cause.


Regular physical activity helps to manage your weight, balance hormone levels, strengthen the immune system, improve bone health, reduce stress, reduce fatigue, improve chemo brain, and the list goes on!


If you are able, aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate areobic physical activity (which increases your heart rate and breathing so you can talk but not sing a song), 5 days a week.

Alternatively, you can do more vigorous aerobic activity for 75 minutes a week. It is also recommended to include strength training activities to work all the major muscle groups twice a week. If you can do more, even better! Finding an activity you enjoy, like dancing or an exercise class with friends, makes exercising more fun and easier to stick to!


Physical activity may lower the risk of lymphoedema or improve lymphoedema for individuals who already have it, and exercise is safe and encouraged for people with lymphoedema when performed in the right way.


If you are not exercising regularly, begin by introducing short chunks (10 to 15 minutes) of gentle activity, such as walking, and build up slowly until you reach your target. Remember that ANY exercise is better than no exercise! If you are wondering how to get started with exercise, my Physiotherapy colleagues at SELCA offer some great advice here.


As with other types of lifestyle changes, it is important to talk with your treatment team before starting a new physical activity program. Your team can advise what level of activity is appropriate for you and help signpost you to additional support.


Dietary choices


There isn't a specific breast cancer diet that everyone should follow to reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence. Rather, several dietary patterns have been shown to be beneficial. These strategies are rooted in aiming for a pleasurable and sustainable nutritional intake and lifestyle rather than a rigid 'diet'. This approach is ideal as it allows flexibility in understanding the information and implementing things in a way that works in your life.


A core theme is to increase your consumption of plant foods e.g., fruit, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts, and seeds. This will ensure a diet that is low in saturated fat, high in fibre, rich in phytochemicals (which prevent oxidative damage to cells), vitamins and minerals, stabilises blood sugar levels, and supports healthy weight management. A predominantly plant-based diet also helps to reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. You don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to get the benefits of including more plant foods in your diet.


Next, we'll delve into some actionable dietary tips you can integrate into your daily routine.


Please note: If you are still battling with side effects following cancer treatment e.g., digestive issues, loss of appetite, or any other health concerns, the following advice may not be appropriate – please seek specialist cancer nutrition advice.


1. Reduce saturated fat

Moderating excessive saturated fat intake improves overall health by aiding weight management, reducing the risk of health issues. It also benefits heart health by lowering cholesterol levels. While ongoing research investigates the direct link between excessive saturated fat and breast cancer recurrence, it is well established that limiting excessive saturated fats can help reduce body inflammation, a known factor linked to various cancers, including breast cancer. The consensus is that limiting excessive saturated fats in a balanced diet promotes good health.


Examples of foods high in saturated fats include pies, pastries, hard cheese, fatty cuts of meat, processed meats (e.g., bacon, sausages, chorizo, luncheon meats, hot dogs), butter, chocolate bars, shop bought cakes and biscuits.


PRACTICAL TIPS:

  • Switch butter for a spread of avocado, or a drizzle of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. You can find lots more ideas here!

  • Choose lean cuts of meat and don’t eat red meat frequently

  • Grate hard cheese to make a small portions go further

  • Switch processed meat for sliced chicken breast, or even better, oily fish such as salmon or mackerel (tinned oily fish is a good choice too!)

  • Replace a chocolate bar with a handful of homemade trail mix – a variety of nuts, seeds, some dried fruit and/or pieces of dark chocolate


2. Increase fibre

Fibre-rich foods such as whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seeds, peas, beans, and lentils have various health benefits, including supporting digestive health, regulating blood sugar levels, improving cholesterol levels, and aiding in weight management. Some studies suggest that a high-fibre diet may have an influence on oestrogen metabolism - the exact relationship is still an area of ongoing research.


PRACTICAL TIPS:

  • Stock the freezer with frozen fruit and vegetables so they are easily available, and you can take out just what you need, reducing waste

  • Replace biscuits as snacks with apple wedges and nut butter, vegetable sticks/ oatcakes and hummus, or a piece of fruit with unsalted nuts

  • Replace white pasta with a legume-based pasta e.g. red lentil, or a whole grain pasta

  • Keep a jar of mixed nuts and seeds in your fridge – sprinkle on yoghurt, porridge, cereals, salads, or add to a smoothie


3. Avoid sugary drinks such as cola, lemonade, and energy drinks

These drinks contain 'empty' calories, i.e., they have no nutritive value, can lead to rapid spikes and subsequent drops in blood sugar levels, and contribute to carrying excess weight.


PRACTICAL TIPS:

  • Try muddling some fresh or frozen berries in the bottom of a glass and add still or sparkling water

  • Make up a herbal tea like ‘very berry’ flavour and drink it cold

  • Infuse water with cucumber, mint, orange, lemon, or orange

  • Dilute a small amount of fruit juice in a tumbler of still or sparkling water

  • You can find more ideas here.


4. Include whole soy foods in the diet e.g., edamame beans, tofu, tempeh

Research suggests that including a moderate amount of whole soy foods in the diet is not only safe during and after breast cancer treatment, but eating in this way may also help to reduce the risk of breast cancer returning. This includes women with hormone-sensitive breast cancer and those on Tamoxifen. It is recommended to avoid soy supplements.


PRACTICAL TIPS:

  • Edamame beans make a nourishing and tasty snack

  • Replace some (or all meat) in recipes with soybeans

  • Make a miso soup with tofu

  • Add tofu or tempeh to chilli, soups, and stews

  • Here is a nice recipe for edamame falafel wraps


5. If you choose to drink, limit your alcohol intake

Studies have shown that drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing breast cancer. Whether alcohol affects the risk of breast cancer coming back is not as clear.

To mitigate risk, experts recommended avoiding alcohol consumption altogether. This must be a personal choice. If you choose to drink, you could try aiming to limit your intake to no more than 3-4 units a week.


PRACTICAL TIPS:

  • Try kombucha (a mildly fizzy, fermented drink made from tea) instead of wine

  • Lucky Saint, Heineken and Brew Dog make great no-alcohol and low-alcohol beers and lagers

  • Seedlip, Pentire Drinks, CleanCo, and Three Spirit Drinks make great non-alcoholic spirits and elixirs

  • ‘Set your intentions’ before you leave the house, for example, I am not going to drink tonight, or I will only have one drink tonight. Planning ahead can help you to stick to your guns!


If you would like support and encouragement to put these recommendations and more into practice, please get in touch with us at The Cancer Dietitian for a consultation. I would be delighted to help you.


T: 020 8064 2865

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