Breast Cancer Awareness Month is underway, and although this year’s observance may look quite different than it has in the past due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the message remains the same—with proper awareness and early detection, successful treatment of breast cancer is possible.
The key phrase here is “early detection.” Everyone—meaning women and men—should know how to detect early signs and symptoms of breast cancer and get regular screenings. It’s also important to be aware of the many risk factors for developing cancer, including (among others) obesity, excessive alcohol intake, and smoking.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, you should make changes that work for you and set goals to work towards healthier habits that help reduce cancer risk. One of the most important changes you can make from the standpoint of cancer prevention is to adopt a healthy diet.
What nutritional changes can you make to reduce your cancer risk? A good way to start is by limiting sugar-sweetened drinks. Many studies have shown a link between sweetened beverages and heart disease, obesity, and cancer, so quench your thirst with water, iced tea, or other unsweetened beverages instead.
While we’re on the subject of beverages, I should add that it’s recommended to limit alcohol consumption. Women should have no more than one drink per day, and men should not exceed two drinks daily. The fact is, when it comes to cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol at all. If you do drink alcohol, aim for moderation and remember that less is best. Of course, binge drinking, defined as consuming more than five or six drinks at one time, should be avoided as well.
In terms of foods, try to limit your consumption of red meat and processed meats, such as bologna sausage, bacon, and hot dogs. If you’re a meat lover and find this almost impossible, your goal should be to aim for less than 12 ounces of meat a week. That would be three four-ounce portions for the week. Also, limit fast foods that are high in fat, starch, and sugars. In addition, choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and beans. Make whole grains the center of your plate with lots of vegetables and fruit at each meal. Beans and other legumes are excellent sources of fiber, protein, and vitamins/minerals.
Making these nutritional choices will help you maintain a health weight, which in turn will lower your cancer risk. Naturally, being physically active will help you stay in a healthy weight range as well. Aim for at least 30 minutes of activity per day, whether you enjoy gardening, running, rowing, shooting hoops in the driveway, or any other activity.
One more important point I’d like to make with respect to nutrition: avoid quackery with supplements! There are all kinds of supplements on the market that claim to protect against—or even cure—cancer, but most of these products have no science backing their claims. However, there’s nothing wrong with taking a multivitamin and making sure you get enough Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and beta carotene. Also, certain dietary elements such as garlic, ground flax seed, ginger, and green tea are known to boost immunity and are easy to add to foods and smoothies.
What if you’ve already been diagnosed with cancer? The same nutritional recommendations still apply. I often have new cancer patients tell me they’re going to “start eating healthy now.” I tell them that’s great and then give them all this same advice to follow.
Though scientists are doing constant research to determine how diet affects disease, we do know that the food choices we make can help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer and many other forms of cancer. So, this October, let’s challenge ourselves to lose some extra pounds, increase our activity, make healthy food choices, limit alcohol, and look for other ways to lower our cancer risk as well as make our homes and community healthier places to live, work, and play.
Laurie Syring, RD/LD, is Clinical Nutrition Manager at ProMedica Flower Hospital.