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Nutrition, lifestyle critical to preventing breast cancer and staying healthy through treatment

October 1, 2018
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Susan Hale is a certified oncology specialist in nutrition and a registered dietitian at Cabell Huntington Hospital's Edwards Comprehensive Cancer Center.

HUNTINGTON — The complexities of modern medicine devised to effectively treat and eliminate breast cancer are astonishing — beyond the realm of the average, untrained patient.

But that’s not to imply a patient’s whole health is too much for their own understanding. In fact, there’s much an individual can do for their own health, during and after treatment, through maintaining proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.

“I always tell patients there is no one food or diet that will ensure that we’re not going to get cancer or will completely eliminate the risk of cancer,” said Susan Hale, a certified oncology specialist in nutrition and a registered dietitian at Cabell Huntington Hospital’s Edwards Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“But healthy lifestyle changes can decrease an individual’s risk of cancer.”

The foundations to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, as it applies to the breast cancer patient, are no different than the practices suggested to any one person: Maintaining a healthy weight; eating a nutritious diet anchored by fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats; and getting regular exercise as each individual’s condition permits.

“Those are the lifestyle changes that we can make,” Hale said. “We as individuals have the power to eat healthy and maintain a healthy BMI.”

A healthy body mass index for women, which is calculated using a person’s weight proportioned for their height, should be around 19 to 24. A higher BMI is normally indicative of an excessive of visceral fat, which forms around the abdomen, and has been linked to an increased risk for breast cancer.

Hale also warned against the consumption of alcohol, as different levels of regular drinking have been shown to increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

Though all lifestyle changes should be made after consulting a physician, Hale suggested considering a more plant-based diet in addition to lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, limitations on saturated fats and avoiding trans-fats.

A plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean vegetarian, she added, but meats to include should be leaner choices like chicken, turkey and fish, as opposed to red meats.

“Research is telling us that the healthy lifestyle that we need to lead is vital for (preventing) all chronic illness,” Hale said.

While dietary supplements can be taken, Hale advised that foods themselves be the primary source of vitamins and minerals, as the body benefits more this way.

For exercise, the American Cancer Society calls for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week — this equates to around 30 minutes daily. Aside from burning calories and decreasing visceral fat, exercise has been shown to decrease inflammation, glucose and insulin levels in the body, said Amy Gannon, a registered dietitian and assistant professor in Marshall University’s Department of Dietetics.

A mother of two boys, Gannon experienced it all first-hand after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, enduring a double mastectomy and nearly two grueling years of chemotherapy, radiation, and intravenous treatment.

The medication sometimes made eating difficult or unpleasant, but she stayed healthy with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean means, though sometimes deferred to something more comfortable like chicken soup.

“I just tried to eat healthfully, but of course there were days when I was nauseous and couldn’t eat anything,” Gannon said.

Though the ACA warns that nausea from breast cancer treatment can lead to malnutrition if the patient does not wish to eat enough, Gannon added that most women in treatment actually gain weight as their metabolism slows.

Gannon also suggested a plant-based diet, which she considers to be plants making up at least half the meal. All fruits and vegetables are shown to have preventive properties, but vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts carry nutrients that may be protective against cancer cells. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables, she said, are also indicative of a high nutrient value.

In terms of supplements, Gannon promoted Vitamin D — ideally the better-absorbed Vitamin D3 — as one she also took to improve her immune system.

Like Hale, Gannon also spoke against regular consumption of alcohol. While some studies have defined one drink per day as acceptable, others have indicated any amount of alcohol can increase a person’s risk.

A healthy diet and exercise is also critical to preventing recurrence even after the patient is cleared of cancer, Gannon added — a constant motivating force for breast cancer survivors in particular.

“When I think of preventing breast cancer and keeping it from coming back, keeping a healthy weight is the most important,” Gannon said. “If you’re not at a healthy weight when you’re in surgery, (after surgery) is when you’re going to want to go to it.”

For current cancer patients, one way to easily stomach nutrient-rich greens is through green foods powders, which are dried and pulverized vegetables, fruits and grasses that can be mixed and consumed as a drink, suggested Travis Lemon, a certified herbalist and owner of Tulsi, a health food store at The Market in downtown Huntington.

Green food powders are supplements generally based on dark, leafy greens and grasses and spinach, barley and alfalfa, but often contain not-so-common green nutrients like chlorella and spirulina. Many brands and types of green food powders are available, though Lemon advised finding one with a good variety of ingredients and that specifies its been “juiced,” rather than simply ground, which tend to have stronger properties than those filled with extra plant fiber.

Advising against that any change be made alongside a doctor’s recommendations, Lemon said green foods powders can be an easily consumed way for those without a strong appetite to get to extra nutrition mixed into a drink or a smoothie.

“For anybody going through any sort of issue with medical treatment, the biggest thing its going to be to keep your nutrition well,” Lemon said. “You may not feel like eating, but that’s the foundation of health and if we can doctor up what we’re already consuming (with extra nutrients), that’s very important.”

Lemon also touted the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric high in curcumin, which is the chemical that makes the root yellow.

“There’s definitely some still really young research that’s promising on curcumin specifically,” Lemon said.

More than 266,000 Americans are projected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society.

“For anybody going through any sort of issue with medical treatment, the biggest thing its going to be to keep your nutrition well. You may not feel like eating, but that’s the foundation of health and if we can doctor up what we’re already consuming (with extra nutrients), that’s very important.”

—Travis Lemon, certified herbalist and owner of the health food store Tulsi

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