Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Taking Control with Diet and Exercise
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a campaign to increase visibility and awareness of breast cancer. Odds are that you probably have a family member or friend who has been diagnosed with breast cancer or some other form of the disease. While the medical establishment has made great progress in the treatment of cancer, treatment is still a very arduous journey for patients. The trials of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, etc. take its toll on the patient’s body and makes formerly routine tasks difficult.
Cancer patients understandably may feel a loss of control over their lives when dealing with a cancer diagnosis. While they ultimately decide what treatment they will undergo, their choices are limited. They can, however, potentially boost the efficacy of their medical treatment with a nutritious diet and moderate exercise.
Eating a healthy diet is especially important when the body is undergoing stress. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins are common dietary recommendations, and their importance does not diminish during cancer treatment. Like anyone else, substituting these types of foods for nutrient-deficient processed foods is also a good bet for better health and higher energy levels.
For breast cancer patients, there is some question as to what is a healthy level of soy-based food to eat. Estrogen receptor positive breast cancer responds to changes in estrogen levels in the body. Soy contains isoflavones, which are converted by the body to phytoestrogen. It is unclear to what extent increased consumption of soy isoflavones might affect the health of this type of breast cancer cell. The Dana-Farber Cancer recommends that women with breast cancer avoid soy isoflavone supplements and foods with concentrated amounts of isoflavones, such as foods made with textured vegetable protein (TVP) and protein powders and bars that list soy protein isolate as an ingredient. Whole soy foods like tofu, soy milk, and edamame, however, can continue to be consumed in moderate amounts several times a week. Products like soybean oil, soy sauce, and those that contain soy lecithin do not increase phytoestrogen and are fine to eat.
Cathy Schultz was diagnosed Stage 2 breast cancer just a few months after her 60th birthday. As a community health educator, she was already fully aware that a good diet and exercise is key to maintaining one’s health, and her experience with cancer treatment only reinforced their value. “I learned that I needed to cut back on refined sugars in any form, as cancer feeds on sugar. I was also advised by the nutritionist at the cancer center I was treated at to avoid or greatly reduce dairy and meat because of the naturally occurring hormones in both,” Cathy said. While she missed her cheese and yogurt, Cathy said she was able to substitute other healthier alternatives into her diet. She also said her diagnosis made her much more aware of what she was eating.
Exercise can also offer a huge boost to the overall health of cancer patients. As long as their doctor has not placed restrictions on physical activity, cancer patients should take advantage of the physical and mental benefits of regular exercise. The American Cancer Society says that exercise during cancer treatment can help the patient in the following ways:
- Keep or improve your physical abilities (how well you can use your body to do things)
- Improve balance, lower risk of falls and broken bones
- Keep muscles from wasting due to inactivity
- Lower the risk of heart disease
- Lessen the risk of osteoporosis (weak bones that are more likely to break)
- Improve blood flow to your legs and lower the risk of blood clots
- Make you less dependent on others for help with normal activities of daily living
- Improve your self-esteem
- Lower the risk of being anxious and depressed
- Lessen nausea
- Improve your ability to keep social contacts
- Lessen symptoms of tiredness (fatigue)
- Help you control your weight
- Improve your quality of life
Fortunately for Cathy Schultz, she was a regular power walker and had been a member at FitMe Wellness for 8 months prior to her diagnosis. “Before coming to FitMe Wellness, I had been power walking and practicing yoga on a regular basis. But coming to FitMe became a habit that, in the end, gave me the stamina and positive attitude required to survive the chemo and radiation.” She says that the greatest benefit of a tough workout for her was the cleansing power of perspiration, which she felt helped her body release the toxins from chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Your health care providers will probably provide you with the same advice that they would give any of their patients starting a new exercise program: start slowly, increase incrementally, and don’t be discouraged when the going gets tough. If you are someone who has already been exercising regularly, you might have to tone down the intensity of your workouts as you go through treatment.
Cathy Schultz was able to maintain her regimen of power walking five times a week and getting on the elliptical and doing some strength training at FitMe Wellness three times a week. “When I did tell any of the providers I was seeing what my exercise regimen consisted of, they were amazed and very encouraging! They would tell me I was a ‘rock star,’” Cathy said.
Remember that the goal of exercise is to improve your overall health, so if there are any out-of-the-ordinary aches, pains, etc., contact your health care provider as soon as possible and cease the physical activity that caused them until you are cleared by your healthcare provider. Consider asking your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist who has experience working with patients with similar diagnoses; there might be certain symptoms or restrictions around which they can help you create your ideal workout.
While a cancer diagnosis may seem like the end of the world, it is important to remember that there are things you can do on your own to increase your odds of overcoming your diagnosis. In addition to eating well and exercise, Cathy Schultz recommends researching your particular diagnosis as much as possible. “Becoming an informed patient will empower you to become the best advocate for your care,” Cathy says. Additionally, she recommends keeping a positive attitude, a sense of humor and to keep smiling during your treatment.