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Even with Breast Cancer, Healthy Diet Counts

For women with a history of breast cancer, information on healthy nutrition for cancer prevention may seem too little, too late. Now researchers bring welcome news that even after diagnosis, a healthy diet may be one way to keep breast cancer at bay.

Aim for more plants, less fat

These findings come out of Women’s Healthy Eating and Living (WHEL) trial, an ongoing diet study of more than 3,000 women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer between 1995 and 2000. To arrive at the latest results, researchers examined how the interaction between hot flashes and dietary habits affected the risk of being diagnosed with cancer again in this group.

Women in the WHEL study were assigned to one of two diets. The control diet consisted of the government-recommended 5-A-Day program, containing five servings of vegetables and fruit and at least 20 grams of fiber per day, with less than 30% of daily calories from fat. The women in the intensive intervention group were instructed to follow a diet containing at least three servings of fruit, five servings of vegetables, 16 ounces of vegetable juice, and 30 grams of fiber per day, with 15 to 20% of daily calories from fat. Women in the intervention group received telephone counseling and group meetings with a registered dietitian to help maintain the diet changes.

After an average of 7.3 years, among women without hot flashes after breast cancer, those in the intensive intervention diet group had 31% fewer breast and other new primary cancers than women in the control diet group. As well, the researchers noted that compared with women who did not have hot flashes, those who did had a lower risk of being diagnosed with another cancer. This was true for women in both the control diet and intervention diet groups, suggesting that in women with a history of hot flashes, the diet did not prove to be as beneficial for cancer risk reduction.

You may be tempted to skip the healthy diet if you have a history of both breast cancer and hot flashes, since hot flashes alone seemed to offer some protection against another cancer diagnosis. However, this would be a mistake. In another WHEL study paper, researchers reported that women who consume five or more daily servings of vegetables and fruit and who exercise regularly (equivalent to brisk walking 30 minutes, six days per week), reduced their risk of breast cancer recurrence by nearly 50% compared with women not engaging in these healthy behaviors.

Chewing and moving

Both eating well and exercising regularly are important for maintaining health after breast cancer. Some tips for getting started:

• Make daily servings of vegetables and fruit a priority. Munch on fresh fruit and veggies. Try carrots and hummus or apples and almonds for a snack.

• Try including more vegetables in your meals. Add veggies to your next casserole, sauce, or soup. Some options may even be available in convenient pre-cut or bagged forms, such as baby-cut carrots, broccoli and cauliflower florets, onions, garlic, and bell peppers.

• Go frozen if it’s easier. Frozen fruit and vegetables offer nutritional value too.

• Move more. All it takes is a good daily walk!

(J Clin Oncol 2008 Dec 15; [e-publication ahead of print]; J Clin Oncol 2007;25:2345–51)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD

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