Nutrition & Breast Cancer – September 2007

Breast cancer is all too common today and can be a very difficult time for those undergoing treatment. They is lots of advice out there about what we can do to help ourselves during treatment or to prevent getting breast cancer. We covered a piece on RTE’s the Afternoon Show where we tried to offer some general guidelines to people out there. Hopefully it will provide some useful information for you…

The risk of developing cancer is dependent on many factors including age, family history and unquestionably our environment and particularly our diet also plays a role. Eating certain foods might decrease your chances of developing cancer, reduce the likelihood of recurrence or help slow down progression of the disease.

Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer in Irish women after non-melanoma skin cancer. The risk increases with age; 1 in 12 Irish women are at risk of developing the disease before the age of 75.

Preventing Breast Cancer

1. Maintain a healthy weight; avoid being underweight or overweight.

2. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. Try to eat at least five portions a day of a variety of
vegetables and fruits.

3. Drink alcohol only in moderation; aim to drink less than two drinks in an evening.

4. Be physically active

5. Choose a diet rich in a variety of plant-based foods including pulses, nuts, and seeds

6. Select foods naturally low in fat i.e. avoid high fatty foods like crisps, takes-aways or fatty cuts
of meat

7. Avoid salty foods and adding salt to your food e.g. processed meals, crisps, packet soups and

8. Avoid smoking

Common dietary issues during treatment;

How you feel during your cancer treatment will depend on the type of treatment you have, the duration of it and whether you have had treatment previously.

Nausea +/- vomiting is one of the most common complaints among cancer patients. Management of nausea and vomiting depends on the severity of the symptoms. Milder cases can often be treated by consuming small meals frequently, avoiding offensive odors, drinking enough fluids, and getting fresh air. In more serious cases of nausea, little and often is the best approach. Cold fluids are often easier to tolerate than foods so drinks of a high calorific value are beneficial. E.g. 7 up/ lucozade with the fizz taken out.

If you have a loss of appetite there are a few simple steps you can take;
1. Eat more when you feel the hungriest.
2. Eat small portions, use a side plate. This way you get the satisfaction of finishing a meal. You can
always go back for more.
3. Eat little and often e.g. every 2-3 hours as opposed to 3 large meals per day.
4. Eat the foods you enjoy the most.
5. Drink at least 8 to 10 glasses of fluids daily to avoid dehydration. Sip fluids frequently between
meals and try to chose fluids with some calorific value
6. Try drinking chilled or frozen fluids. Freeze drinks in ice cube trays or as ice-pops

Constipation; Infrequent or hard, dry stools may occur either as a side effect of medications or changed dietary habits. To alleviate symptoms you need to;

1. Increase the amount of soluble fibre in the diet i.e. fruit & vegetables, pulses, oats and seeds
(particularly linseed).
2. Try to have porridge for breakfast
3. Increase fluid intake.
4. Drink a probiotic yogurt drink. The probiotics help to regulate the rhythm of the bowel e.g. yakult

It can be difficult coping with weight changes. For those who lose weight it is important to encourage them to eat little and often, to drink fluids of a calorific value and occasionally try nutritional supplements. For patients who gain weight during treatment it is important to reassure them that they should not restrict their calorie intake at this time and they can lose weight once all treatments have finished. Whether a patient loses or gains weight it can be very sensitive and difficult issue for the individual. If you have any concerns regarding your weight you ask to see a dietitian.

Eating after breast cancer

Once you have finished treatment it is a good idea to focus on a long-term balanced low fat diet. Try to maintain a healthy weight and keep active.

1. Eat at least five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily
2. Choose healthy fats. Healthy fats include omega-3 fatty acids that are in oily fish, nuts and seeds
and avoid unhealthy fats like saturated fats or Trans fats.
3. Chose naturally low fat protein rich foods such as fish, lean meats, eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu, miso
and legumes
4. Opt for high fibre carbohydrates, such as whole grains, oats and sweet potato

This combination of foods will ensure that you’re eating plenty of the vitamins and nutrients you need to help make your body strong.

After treatment for breast cancer many women will begin menopause and find themselves struggling with menopausal symptoms. Menopause occurs when the ovaries cease to produce their usual amount of oestrogen. Effects on the body include Changes in body weight and body shape, hot flushes, disturbed sleep pattern and health changes. Each woman responds to menopause in her own unique way. To reduce the risk of hot flushes avoid triggers like alcohol, caffeine, hot spicy food and smoking.

Boosting the immune system

Whether you are preparing for or recovering from treatment it is very important to try and boost the immune system as much as possible.

Antioxidants have disease-fighting properties that protect cells from damage by substances called free radicals. Antioxidants work by neutralizing free radicals that are formed when body cells burn oxygen for energy. Antioxidants help keep the immune system healthy and reduce the risk for cancer and other diseases. Antioxidants include;

1. Vitamin A which helps the body resist infection and protects against cell damage.
2. Vitamin C, which is thought to be the most important immune boosting nutrient, helps prevent cell
damage caused by free radicals.
3. Vitamin E is considered to be very important in heart health and protecting against certain
cancers particularly breast cancer.
4. Zinc; which is essential for a healthy immune system and resistance to infection, it helps with the
healing of wounds and is particularly important for healthy skin.

Many people are tempted to supplement their diet with large doses of vitamins at this time. It is always best to get nutrition from the food that we eat and if you are undergoing any treatment always ask your doctor or pharmacist about what vitamins if any are suitable for you to take.