By Bridget Bennett, Registered Dietitian, Oncology Nutrition Specialist, Nuvance Health
Focus on Breast Health is a series of tips to inform and empower you to be proactive about all aspects of breast care.
When most people think of breast cancer treatment, they think about surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Some people may not immediately think about the role of nutrition and how it can influence healing, health and quality of life during a patient’s breast cancer journey.
Here is what you need to know about nutrition if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
How can a registered dietitian help me during breast cancer treatment?
Registered dietitians guide patients with diet recommendations so they can maintain their health during cancer treatment and beyond.
Breast cancer treatment can cause fatigue. Proper nutrition can provide patients with strength and energy. Some treatments, like chemotherapy, may cause nausea or poor appetite, and a registered dietitian can provide nutrition tips to help patients cope. Certain foods may also aid in healing.
We also help patients with a planned breast surgery prepare for it with diet and exercise tips so they feel well before surgery, which will aid in their healing after surgery.
At Nuvance Health, registered dietitians who specialize in oncology nutrition are available for our patients from diagnosis through survivorship. Patients can connect with us any time before, during or after treatment.
What can a breast cancer patient expect when they see a dietitian before treatment?
We usually do not recommend drastic changes to a patient’s diet and exercise routines before breast cancer treatment — our patients already have a lot to deal with mentally, physically and schedule-wise with medical appointments.
However, we encourage adopting healthy habits within reason. For example, aim to follow a regular eating and sleeping routine to maintain strength. Eating nutritious meals a few times a day and getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night is a good start.
What can a breast cancer patient expect when they see a dietitian during treatment?
During treatment, we may talk more about hydration if patients have infusion chemotherapy. Chemotherapy goes through the body and kidneys, which can be taxing if the body is not properly hydrated. We usually recommend water, but we may also recommend a beverage with electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium.
We ask our patients to let us know if they are having bowel movements regularly. We may recommend more fiber in their diet if they have uncomfortable treatment-related constipation.
Are there foods that may help me heal from breast cancer treatment?
Everyone has individual tastes and circumstances that influence their diet. In general, we recommend most people follow a plant-based diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. You do not need to be a vegan or vegetation to follow a plant-based diet; aim to eat about two-thirds plant-based foods and one-third animal-based foods. Examples of these types of food include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Lean protein, such as chicken, turkey and fish
- Legumes, such as beans and lentils
- Unsaturated fats such as olive oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains, such as oats, brown rice and quinoa
Adequate protein can help tissue heal after surgery. High-quality protein sources include:
- Dairy products, such as milk and low-fat yogurt and cheese
- Chicken and turkey
- Seafood, such as salmon, tuna and scallops
- Lean red meat in moderation, such as beef, lamb and pork; aim for less than 11 ounces a week
- Vegans or vegetarians can get plant-based proteins from legumes, nuts and seeds and whole grains
Regularly consuming the plant-based, whole foods outlined above can aid in reducing inflammation.
Highly processed foods can contribute to inflammation. Prolonged inflammation can make it harder for your body to heal itself. Examples of highly processed foods are packaged candy, chips, foods with ingredients you do not understand and sweetened drinks like juice and soda.
How can I manage fatigue during breast cancer treatment?
A dietitian can work with you to determine the source of your fatigue. Treatment-related anemia (low iron) may cause fatigue. We would recommend eating iron-rich foods such as lean red meat (if the patient eats meat), legumes (beans) and spinach.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, staying active can help fight fatigue. Exercise increases oxygen levels in the blood and boosts endorphins in the brain, which can make you feel more energized.
Does eating soy affect breast cancer?
Soy has isoflavones, which are plant estrogens. High levels of estrogen have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. But studies have shown that whole soy foods do not have high enough levels of isoflavones to increase breast cancer risk.
Therefore, whole soy foods are okay for patients with breast cancer. In fact, whole soy foods have many health benefits, including that they are a good source of fiber and protein and naturally cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat. Examples of whole soy foods are edamame, soybeans, tofu or unsweetened soy milk. We do recommendation avoiding highly processed soy or supplemental forms of soy like soy protein.
What should I know about over-the-counter medications and supplements during breast cancer treatment?
Let your medical oncologist know about any over-the-counter (OTC) medications or supplements you are taking to determine if you should continue taking them. Certain OTC medications or supplements may have known interactions with cancer treatments.
The bottom line: Nutrition plays an important role in healing, health and quality of life during breast cancer treatment. Nuvance Health registered dietitians develop individualized nutrition plans for our patients to address their unique needs and work as part of a team that provides expert breast cancer treatment.