Following a breast cancer diagnosis, some patients become more conscious of what they eat, putting greater emphasis on eating the healthiest foods possible.
From what they eat to how often, many hope to ease symptoms and manage side effects through healthy eating.
“People find making positive choices helps give them back a sense of control,” Adele Hug, oncology dietitian at Macmillan Cancer Support. “It can also help you feel that you’re doing the best for your health.”
While there’s a lot of “conflicting” information surrounding diet and breast cancer, there are general tips and expert advice on nutrition that patients may find useful to follow.
Dr Emma Pennery, clinical director at Breast Cancer Care, says: “There are many conflicting theories about diet and breast cancer, which can be confusing.
“The truth is there are no specific foods people should eat. Make sure you eat and drink what you feel able to. Eating little and often can help, as does maintaining a balanced diet.”
It is important to realise that there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to diet and nutrition, but there are certain foods that may help – and others which might be worth avoiding – during treatment.
Experts advise people going through chemotherapy to maintain a nutritious, well-balanced diet consisting of the following:
- Lots of fruit and vegetables
- Plenty of starchy foods (carbohydrates)
- Some protein-rich foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, nuts, eggs and pulses
- Some milk and dairy foods, such as cheese, yoghurt and cream
- A small amount of foods rich in fat, salt and sugar
It’s important to acknowledge that there may be times when you don’t want to eat, particularly during chemotherapy, and experts note that you shouldn’t put pressure on yourself. Instead, be kind.
“At times when your appetite is low and you may have other side effects like a sore mouth or nausea, it can be a matter of just eating whatever you fancy, when you fancy it,” says Adele Hug.
“Don’t worry too much about what you eat – just eat what you can. Eating little and often can be easier to manage than a large plate of food when you’re on treatment.
“And if you don’t feel like eating at all for a day or two – then at least keep drinking fluids. Sometimes people forget how important it is to have enough fluids during treatment.”
Hug says there aren’t any foods you should specifically avoid during treatment, but adds that it’s important for patients to follow food safety rules.
“While going through cancer treatment your immune system can be lower, which means you can pick up infections more easily, so good food hygiene is vital,” she explains.
“This means cooking your food properly, preparing food in a clean space, and washing fruit and vegetables well.”
Dr Pennery adds that there’s some evidence that vitamin supplements, particularly high dose antioxidants including vitamins A, C and E, Co-enzyme Q10 and selenium, might make chemotherapy less effective. As such, some specialists may recommend that patients avoid taking high dose antioxidant supplements during chemotherapy.
Following treatment, experts stress the importance of continuing to eat well.
“There is evidence that being overweight can increase the risk of breast cancer coming back,” says Dr Pennery.
“Therefore eating a low-fat, healthy balanced diet is a good idea. It will also help maintain a healthy weight, which has other health benefits.”
She advises patients to avoid consuming sugar-filled food and drink, as well as fatty foods, post-treatment.
“And drink alcohol only in moderation,” she adds.
Eating healthily can help people who feel self-conscious about changes to their body, especially if they have lost or gained weight. It can also help those who have a higher risk of other health problems such as diabetes, heart disease or osteoporosis, adds Hug.
“If you’ve been told that you may be at an increased risk of any of these conditions, it’s especially important to follow a healthy diet to help prevent them,” she concludes.