When you finish your treatment for breast cancer, you may experience a mixture of feelings. Going through treatment is physically and mentally exhausting, with many side effects from chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and immunotherapy. After the treatment phase is over, is there anything you can do to increase your chances of not getting cancer?
The answer is yes. There are many things you can do in your daily life, in addition to taking medications prescribed by your doctor to help prevent recurrences and keeping up with your screenings.
Cancer experts have long advised breast cancer survivors that the same healthy lifestyle habits that have been shown to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer are also likely to reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence. . In the past, this advice was based primarily on expert opinion.
But more recently, studies specifically conducted on breast cancer survivors have reinforced this view. These results suggest that regular physical activity and a healthy diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans and low in processed carbohydrates and high in fiber may help prevent breast recurrence and death.
You gotta move it, move it
Being physically active has obvious benefits.
Women who exercised regularly before their cancer diagnosis and after treatment are less likely to have their cancer come back or die than those who were inactive. That’s according to a 2020 study by researchers at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, NY.
The study focused on 1,340 women with breast cancer and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) physical activity guidelines for adults, which consist of doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity and 2 days of muscle-strengthening activity each week. In the study, women who did this were less likely to have their cancer come back than those who were inactive. They were also less likely to die during the 2-year study period. Even those who were considered ‘low activity’, meaning they were close to reaching recommended activity levels but hadn’t quite reached it, also had better survival. .
Fitness tips for breast cancer survivors
Your body has been through a lot, from the cancer itself to the treatments. No one expects you to run a marathon unless you want to. But don’t underestimate the power of steady movement.
Start small. Even a daily 15-minute walk has benefits. “You don’t have to do a lot of intense workouts to benefit,” says Karen Basen-Engquist, PhD, director of the Center for Energy Balance in Cancer Prevention and Survivorship at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “It can be hard to start exercising when you’re feeling fatigue from cancer treatment, but moving just a small amount most days can help you get to the point where you can do more.”
Tell your doctor. You may have overlooked the advice you often see in fitness magazines: “Consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.” Don’t ignore that advice this time. Check with your healthcare team to see how much exercise you think you can handle at this point in your recovery.
Set realistic expectations. If you were running 8 minutes before starting chemotherapy, don’t expect to be able to keep up with that pace 3 or 4 months after your last dose. And that’s OK.
Don’t stress your bones and joints. This is especially important if you have experienced chemotherapy-related bone loss. Instead of running or doing high-impact aerobics, which could increase your risk of fractures, start by walking. Or try swimming, a low-impact way to exercise your muscles and your cardiovascular system.
Be aware of your ability to balance. If you have neuropathy (tingling or numbness) in your feet or hands after chemotherapy, it may affect your balance. Pay attention to activities where you are likely to fall. Instead of running on a treadmill, for example, you might prefer to train on an exercise bike.
Take the time to do strength training. It can make a difference in your daily life. “While we can’t say whether or not it improves overall survival, evidence shows that breast cancer survivors who do strength training see improvements in fatigue, quality of life and physical functioning” , says Basen-Engquist.
What to Eat: Leafy Greens and Smart Carb Eating
What about food? The good news is that the general principles of healthy eating are also beneficial for breast cancer survivors.
Two recent studies suggest that a healthy diet can help breast cancer survivors live longer. Both studies involve data from about a quarter of a million women who participated in two large observational studies called the Nurses’ Health Studies. The studies followed these women, all of whom were under 55 and initially cancer-free, until age 30. In 2011, about 9,000 of the study participants had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The first study found that women who ate the highest amounts of fruits and vegetables after their breast cancer diagnosis had a lower overall risk of dying during the study compared to those who ate the least.
When the researchers dug deeper, they found that it was leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts that produced most of the benefits. Women who ate almost a full serving of cruciferous vegetables a day had a 13% lower risk of dying from any cause during the study, compared to those who ate almost none of these vegetables. And women who ate almost two servings of leafy greens a day were 20% less likely to die, compared to those who ate almost no greens.
Carbs were key in the second study — specifically, what types or types of carbs the women ate. It found high glycemic load carbs – those that cause your blood sugar levels to rise, such as sugary drinks, processed foods like crisps and donuts, and fast foods like cheeseburgers and fries – posed a risk increased. Breast cancer survivors on high glycemic load diets were more likely to die from breast cancer than those on low glycemic load diets. They also found that women who ate a high-fiber diet had a lower risk of death than those who ate a low-fiber diet.
The bottom line: Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“Overall, research suggests that women diagnosed with breast cancer may benefit from eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and eating less quickly digested foods, such as whole grains and non-starchy vegetables. “, says Nigel Brockton, PhD, Vice President. research chair of the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR).
And there was good news for tofu and edamame fans: Despite past concerns that soy’s estrogen-like properties could contribute to breast cancer, evidence now shows the opposite to be true. “In fact, soy has a beneficial effect and may even reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence,” says Brockton.
Maintain a healthy weight
In general, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet can help keep you from gaining too much weight, which researchers have also found to be important after breast cancer.
“There is strong evidence that higher body mass index after diagnosis is associated with poorer outcomes in breast cancer,” says Brockton. “Avoid weight gain and do your best to maintain a healthy weight is important.”
Overall, Brockton says the AICR recommendations on diet and physical activity for cancer prevention are still sound advice for breast cancer survivors to avoid a recurrence. These include:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Be physically active.
- Eat more whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes (like beans).
- Avoid sugary drinks and limit your intake of fast foods and processed foods high in fats, starches and sugars.
- Limit red meats like beef, pork and lamb.
- Avoid processed meats and alcohol.