Cheryl McGee has battled breast cancer. Twice. She's undergone surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and treatments for infection, but dietary management was never part of her treatment protocol.
"I don't know why nobody ever told me to go to a nutritionist or how important diet is to recurrence," McGee said. "A nurse once told me in passing to try to stay away from too much sugar," but that was it.
On her own initiative, she started to eat a healthier diet, loading up on fresh fruits and vegetables. "I'm feeling better than I have in a long time."
What to eat: The American Cancer Society advises survivors to reach a healthy body weight, to exercise and to limit high-calorie foods.
Portion control can help you reach those goals, but what foods, specifically, should you be shunning or embracing?
Doctors and nutritionists versed in the latest research recommend a plant-based diet rich in natural compounds known as phytochemicals, said Amanda Bontempo, oncology dietitian at Montefiore-Einstein Center for Cancer Care.
Phytochemicals have health-promoting properties that work together with vitamins and nutrients to prevent, halt and lessen diseases. They act as antioxidants to protect against or repair damage to cells and are found mostly in colorful fruits and vegetables but also often found in beans, grains, onions, garlic and corn.
Breast cancer survivors "should eat a variety of antioxidant-rich foods every day," Bontempo said. Her dietary advice follows:
Less of: Red meat, processed meat, trans fats, saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, refined sugars and other "white" foods. The American Cancer Society warns that alcohol could increase the risk of estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer recurrence and recommends no more than one drink a day. Soda should also be avoided because it interferes with calcium absorption and has absolutely no nutritional value.
More of: Whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, olive oil and lean protein such as fish, poultry and beans. Include semolina pasta, whole-grain breads and whole grains themselves like bulgur, barley and quinoa, but do keep portion size in mind. Turmeric, ginger and other healthy herbs and spices contain potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may inhibit tumor cell growth and suppress enzymes that activate carcinogens.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, also rich in phytochemicals, help fight breast cancer by converting a cancer-promoting estrogen into a more protective hormone. They're also a good source of vitamin C and soluble fiber, which helps control weight by slowing down digestion and making you feel full.
Omega 3, the fatty acid found in flaxseed and oily fish such as sardines, salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring, may benefit the immune system by reducing inflammation and the risk of metastatic cancer.
Allium vegetables that include garlic and onion are known to be protective and can be added to almost any dish. Tomatoes, berries, whole grains, apples, legumes and green peas are also rich in anti-cancerous properties.
White and green teas are recommended because they contain antioxidants that may stave off breast cancer recurrence.
Whole soy, which mimics estrogen, can be eaten in moderation, Bontempo said, but processed soy is high in estrogen and should be avoided. For those being treated with tamoxifen, any soy can interfere with therapy, so consult with your doctor.
Vitamin D can directly or indirectly control carcinogenic genes in the body, studies show.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers an online tool to find a dietitian near you who specializes in cancer. Visit eatright.org/programs/rdfinder/.
(It may take a minute to load because it's map-based.) Once there, enter your ZIP code, click on "Expertise Area" and select "Cancer/Oncology Nutrition."
The American Cancer Society offers free over-the-phone counseling on nutrition by registered dietitians specializing in oncology. Follow-up materials and support is also offered. Call 800-227-2345 for more information.