In this “Ask the Expert” feature, Cara Anselmo, a registered dietitian nutritionist, discusses the importance of maintaining a healthy diet while undergoing breast cancer treatment.
Eating well during and after cancer treatment is important for your recovery. A healthy diet helps you preserve strength, maintain weight, fight infection, and even alleviate treatment side effects. While every type of cancer presents specific challenges, many nutritional guidelines for breast cancer patients apply to people being treated for all cancers, as well.
Memorial Sloan Kettering clinical dietitian Cara Anselmo explains that the best approach to staying healthy during breast cancer treatment is to follow a plant-based diet with a variety of whole vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and healthy fats. She emphasizes that whole foods are, in most cases, better sources of nutrients than dietary supplement pills.
“Certain dietary supplements may actually interfere with cancer treatments,” she says. “Always speak with your dietitian, doctor, or nurse if you are thinking of taking any supplements during or after cancer treatment.”
Patients’ individual needs and concerns may vary widely depending on the type of treatment they are receiving and how they respond. “Some people find their appetite is reduced during chemotherapy, whereas others tend to eat more,” Ms. Anselmo says. “In fact, women are more likely to gain weight than lose it during breast cancer treatment. Increased stress may cause emotional eating and patients may crave comfort foods. Additionally, they often become less physically active.”
Because weight gain during and after treatment may be associated with an increased risk for breast cancer recurrence – not to mention a host of other chronic illnesses – it’s important to maintain a diet that supports an optimal weight. For patients experiencing reduced appetite, a dietitian can recommend high-protein or high-calorie foods to help avoid unwanted weight loss.
Treatments for breast cancer, as well as other cancers, require patients to take certain precautions to avoid complications. For example, patients receiving chemotherapy should avoid foods that present a safety risk due to possible contamination with pathogens, as the treatment can compromise the immune system.
“Do not eat sushi, undercooked meats or poultry, runny or raw eggs, and unpasteurized juices or other drinks,” Ms. Anselmo says.“Unless your doctor prescribes against it, you can have raw vegetables and fruits – just be sure to wash them well. Whether raw or cooked, vegetables are an amazing source of beneficial nutrients and fiber. Eat a variety of them as there is no one ‘super’ fruit or vegetable.”
It also is important to stay adequately hydrated during chemotherapy. Most women should drink two liters per day of water or other beverages that are low in calories. “It’s fine to have coffee and tea in moderation, but consuming excessive caffeinated drinks can actually promote dehydration,” she says. “Limit or avoid juice drinks, sodas, and other sugar-sweetened beverages.”
If nausea is a side effect of treatment, Ms. Anselmo suggests patients try hot or iced ginger tea. Commercial ginger ale doesn’t offer the same benefits, as it usually doesn’t contain a significant amount of real ginger. “You should avoid food odors, and steer clear of fried, greasy, or pungent foods,” she says. “If you have mouth sores or heartburn, avoid spicy foods and very acidic foods like orange juice and tomato sauce.”
Above all, remember that a registered dietitian can help you with any questions and guide you through any diet changes you may need to make. For further information, see Nutrition and Breast Cancer: Making Healthy Diet Decisions.