Nutrition is not usually top of mind for someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. But cancer treatment’s often harsh effects on your body make proper nutrition essential. Admittedly, adhering to a diet can also be a challenge, but it’s important to know the recommendations and do your best.
Follow a healthy, balanced diet as best you can during treatment. This will help keep up your energy and strength and protect against infection. It also may help you recover more quickly. “Cancer treatment not only affects the cancer cells but some healthy cells as well,” says Amanda Saldivar, MS, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian specializing in oncology nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Center. “These healthy cells need adequate nutrition to heal properly.”
Eat what you can, when you can. Side effects of treatment, such as nausea, mouth or throat sores, fatigue or lack of appetite, can make getting enough food — let alone healthy food — difficult. Try eating smaller meals more frequently, like five or six mini-meals, or snacking constantly throughout the day. Or eat your biggest meal when you’re most hungry, then snack the rest of the day according to what you can manage. If you have strong side effects, stick with foods that you can eat and keep down, even if that means ice cream for lunch (but avoid fried and greasy foods — they’re harder to digest and can upset your stomach).
Some breast cancer patients gain weight during and after their treatment. In that case, work with your doctor to establish a healthy eating plan that helps you get just enough calories from the right kinds of foods.
Pay attention to food safety. In the course of attacking the cancer cells, treatment can wipe out your immune system, which means you should stay away from certain foods. For example, don’t eat raw fish or undercooked meats and poultry; don’t drink unpasteurized milk and juices; and rinse all produce before eating or preparing.
Ditch detox and cleansing diets. “These types of diet can pose more risk than benefit,” Saldivar cautions. Detoxing or fasting will not prevent breast cancer and can actually hinder recovery during treatment. “Detox and cleansing diets are often restrictive in calorie and overall nutrient intake, which may impact cancer treatment in a negative way,” Saldivar says. “Cleansing can pose serious risk for dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.”
Don’t self-medicate with supplements. Unless otherwise instructed by your doctor, avoid taking specific supplements during cancer treatment. Large doses of certain vitamins and minerals, as well as certain herbal treatments, may actually interfere with the effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Eating as a Cancer Survivor
Once you’ve completed treatment, focus on returning to a healthy weight — and do it by eating healthfully. Your goal: to rebuild strength, stamina and muscle, not pack on pounds of fat. Exercise goes hand in hand with good nutrition to achieve this goal.
While there is little scientific evidence that dietary choices prevent cancer recurrence, it’s wise to follow a healthy diet — one that is high in fruits and vegetables, features whole grains instead of refined grains, limits red meat but incorporates more beans, and is low in saturated fat. At minimum, it will help keep your weight in check, boost your energy and help prevent heart disease, diabetes and other types of cancer.
“Try to live the healthiest lifestyle you can, but don’t put added pressure on yourself to be perfect in living this lifestyle,” Saldivar says. “You still need to live your life. It’s always about moderation with everything."