Many people suffering from breast cancer are interested in maintaining a healthy diet, but there’s a ton of incorrect information floating around, so separating fact from fiction can be tricky for patients.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Florence Health spoke to a breast cancer nutritionist to learn about some of the most common breast cancer nutrition myths that are common among patients today.
Common breast cancer myths
Tofu and other soy-based products increase breast cancer risk
A quick google search for “breast cancer and soy” yields thousands of results, many proclaiming that breast cancer patients should not eat soy, and that soy consumption increases breast cancer risk. But according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, soy foods may actually lower cancer risk.
Cara Anselmo, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center points out that it’s fine for women with breast cancer or with a history of breast cancer to eat tofu. “A lot of the abundant literature has shown that’s not a concern,” she explains. Meanwhile, while the consensus stands that whole, soy-based foods are okay, further research is still needed on the potential health impact of consuming soy protein isolates and soy supplements.
Supplements are a cure-all
Wellness companies market to cancer patients with convincing messaging that their products will cure their ills or help manage symptoms — without any literature to support such claims.
“The companies … can be very convincing and make it seem like products are going to be beneficial, when they actually probably aren’t likely to have any benefit, and in fact could do more harm than good,” Anselmo says.
Some supplements can even interfere with treatment, particularly when there’s a direct drug nutrient interaction. “Turmeric or curcumin in supplement form actually does have a direct drug nutrient interaction with certain types of chemotherapy,” Anselmo says. In other cases, taking a multivitamin may reduce the efficacy of certain types of treatment.
For these reasons, remind patients they should speak with a healthcare provider before taking any supplements during or following treatment.
If I do everything right, I won’t get breast cancer
Many people believe if they eat a nutritious diet, exercise, and maintain a healthy lifestyle, they’ll never get cancer — or if they stay healthy, they can prevent cancer from coming back. But this isn’t always the case. Anselmo says she regularly sees patients who eat healthfully, exercise, and live a generally healthy lifestyle, and yet still have a breast cancer diagnosis.
“Some individuals blame themselves because they think, ‘Wow, I must have done something to make this happen,’ when in fact it was nothing that they did wrong at all,” she says.
Sugar feeds cancer
Many breast cancer patients have heard the phrase “sugar feeds cancer” at some point, but Anselmo explains that this issue is far more complicated than it sounds. Sugar doesn’t make cancer grow more quickly, nor will avoiding sugar slow the growth of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. That said, excess consumption of added sugars is correlated with weight gain, which may put someone at increased risk for breast cancer.
How to help your patients
Some breast cancer patients seek nutrition guidance to help improve symptoms during treatment or to manage treatment side effects. Others might look for nutrition information that to reduce their risk of disease recurrence or progression. And many want help managing or losing weight post-treatment, since weight gain is common following breast cancer treatment.
All of these are valid concerns, Anselmo explains. Here are a few ways you can guide your patients toward proper nutrition while they’re fighting breast cancer or in remission:
Encourage a healthy diet
Anselmo recommends a diet that’s mostly plant-based and made primarily of whole foods. This includes at least a few servings of vegetables each day, along with fresh fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, and legumes. Meanwhile, patients should minimize added sugars, processed and red meat, and alcohol, as increasing amounts of research show that these are associated with cancer risk.
It’s also important to make sure patients stay hydrated during treatment, and that they get enough protein, Anselmo says. Protein rich foods include eggs, beans, nuts, tofu, fish, and whole grains like quinoa. If patients find water unpalatable, encourage them to squeeze in some lemon or try some flavored seltzer water.
Don’t forget to discuss drug-nutrient interactions with patients.
Encourage patients to maintain a healthy weight
“In general, if people can avoid weight gain to begin with, that’s best,” Anselmo says, also stressing the importance of speaking to patients early on and often about maintaining a healthy weight. At the same time, remember that “healthy weight” varies from person to person. “In some cases we’re really trying to maximize calorie and protein consumption,” Anselmo says. In others, you may be helping manage weight gain and newly diagnosed diabetes.
Connect patients with other nutrition resources
Most hospitals have registered dietitians on staff who are available to answer questions and provide nutrition guidance for breast cancer patients. It’s important to make sure patients know this is an option, particularly so they have a clear source of reliable nutrition information.
“That’s generally a service that should be available, versus [patients] going and buying all of the different books and reading all of the different websites that put information out there that might be well meaning, but isn’t always as accurate,” Anselmo says.
Foods that Fight Cancer, American Institute of Cancer Research.
How Your Diet May Affect Your Risk of Breast Cancer, American Cancer Society.
Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy, Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences.
Last updated 10/7/2019.