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The Voice of People With Breast Cancer


Our Voices Blog

Lifestyle and Nutrition Considerations for Breast Cancer Patients Series, Part 2: Three Breast Cancer Diets That Harm Not Heal

Cathy Leman, MA, RD, CPT,  is a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified personal trainer, nutrition therapist, blogger, speaker, and the founder of dam. mad. About BREAST CANCER®. In October 2014, after being diagnosed with Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer, Cathy made it her mission to serve the breast cancer community with evidence-based recommendations and guidance. She educates, informs and inspires women to eat, exercise and practice self-care/wellbeing with confidence.

By Cathy Leman, MA, RD, CPT

The feeling appears on the heels of a breast cancer diagnosis so quickly I think the doctor delivering the “It is cancer” news should in the same breath say, “For the rest of your life, prepare to surrender any assumptions that you ever held even a modicum of control over your health, you foolish woman.” Certain you’ll never regain your equilibrium, you search desperately for the first thing that hints even slightly as an option to ground and balance you. For many women, that “first thing” is food. Unhealthy, unsustainable dieting habits all start somewhere and unfortunately, fad diets constantly cycle through the breast cancer community.

Today I’m writing about how three well-intentioned (diet) efforts to find grounding and control can be misguided at best and dangerous at worst. I’ll also share words of wisdom for finding true nutritional balance partnered with compassion and understanding. 

Imagine that. Being kind to yourself!

The F*#! You Diet

Also known as the What The Hell diet, this is the nutrition plan you choose once you’ve determined that it really doesn’t matter what you eat because everything causes breast cancer, that healthy diet you (sort of) ate before your diagnosis failed you, and honestly, you simply no longer give a f*#!

It takes every ounce of energy to wrap your mind around the fact that you actually have breast cancer, and the upcoming surgery and treatment is stressing you out so much you tranquilize yourself with your favorite foods-that-never-fail-to-comfort, heavy on the sweets and chips, hold the broccoli. It takes too much energy to cook, grocery shopping is impossible to squeeze in between the ridiculous number of medical appointments crowding your calendar, and even if you were to consider preparing a meal, you suddenly have cooking amnesia. What in the world could you possibly make, as distracted as you are by your diagnosis?

It would require a preternatural act of God to muster up the concentration necessary to chop, stir, heat, measure and blend – who could possibly cook at a time like this? Besides, you’re so angry about the whole thing, that time alone in the kitchen could very well result in shattered glass, busted dishware, and an unhealthy obsession with that pantry shelf where you hide all the junky snacks. Take out, drive through, and microwave meals become your staples, and there isn’t enough ice cream on the planet to calm you down. 

WISDOM: Chances are, even before your breast cancer diagnosis, you turned to food to soothe, support, and save you. While it’s true food can serve as a reliable, accessible, cheap and legal way to feel better fast, it wasn’t a healthy solution before your diagnosis, and it’s even less so now. Research shows that nutrition has a positive impact on treatment outcomes and in potentially reducing risk of recurrence, so “everything causes breast cancer” just doesn’t hold up.

You have every right to be angry, yet taking that anger out on yourself through a full-on “Eff-U” approach to eating is a classic example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. You may FEEL better (briefly) after pounding down an entire pound cake, but is it possible that the relief comes more from the distraction the cake provides? Of course! It’s so much easier to push reality to the edges of your mind when you’re busy shoving forkfuls of food into your mouth.

Can you list three non-food ways to manage your anger without sending your blood sugar skyrocketing and your GI tract into spasms?

  1. _________________________

  2. _________________________

  3. _________________________

Example: Acknowledge the anger and panic. Purchase a stand-up punching bag immediately.

The Beyond-Perfection Diet

Every. Single. Bite. Must. Be. Squeaky. Clean. You’ve taken nutritious eating to an extreme – even organic isn’t quite organic enough.

This is the nutrition plan you choose when you just know that the healthier and cleaner your diet is, the better off your health, treatment outcome, and recurrence risk will be. How dare breast cancer ever again invade your body (once you’ve had that surgery and whatever treatment lies ahead) with the ironclad, super-clean diet you’ve adopted.

Your refrigerator and pantry are packed with maca and matcha, greens and grains, berries and broccoli. You’ve determined the exact ratio and variety of whole foods necessary to maintain the perfect level of alkalinity required to keep breast cancer at bay. You’ve devoured every breast cancer nutrition book you can get your hands on, counting macros, measuring antioxidant levels of local versus imported red grapes, and undertaking an exhaustive comparison of all varieties of rooibos tea.

Regardless of whether you’re at a party, a restaurant (who knows what’s really in that food?), or the grocery store, if you can’t get the perfect clean food – you simply won’t eat – you’re too terrified that one bite of a conventional carrot will send your cancer everywhere.

How did all of that reading fail to uncover the word “orthorexia” – an idea that offers a slightly different perspective in chasing diet perfection?

WISDOM: Let me be perfectly clear. Now that you’ve been diagnosed, there is NOTHING wrong with the intention to improve your diet. In fact, I encourage it. The trouble comes when an obsession with perfection overrides the sensibility of nourishing your body well enough to withstand treatment and improve outcomes. Nutrition isn’t as black and white, good/bad food-focused as some cancer nutrition books and websites would have you believe. Finding the gray that allows you to actually live your life is a worthy endeavor.

While research continues on foods that show promising benefits for breast cancer risk reduction and potentially even prevention, remember: No single food or meal can cause or prevent cancer, and no “diet” is bulletproof. Increase fruits and vegetables (conventional is fine if organic isn’t in your budget), eat more plant-based proteins like beans, legumes, soy, nuts and seeds, add whole grain options like brown rice and whole-wheat pasta, and don’t forget to serve yourself an enormous helping of satisfaction and enjoyment with your meal.

The Supplements as Food Diet

Eat actual food? No. Absolutely not.

This is the nutrition plan you choose once you’ve determined that you simply can’t trust food to keep you healthy. With your breast cancer diagnosis, you’re living proof. You’ve been advised by your ______________(fill in with questionable website, book, unscrupulous practitioner, etc.) to drink a certain tea, blend and consume a special powder, swallow a particular combination of supplements, and fast every other day.

Food is the enemy, and a breast cancer cure lies in spending time (and untold sums of money) preparing special tinctures and potions. The mixing and monitoring and timing of things takes your mind off the impending surgery and treatment, and you feel confident that this is the best approach to nourishing your body – regardless of what your oncologist or breast surgeon thinks. Enjoying a restaurant meal with friends is out of the question, you’re dropping weight faster than you care to think about, and your energy is flagging. But hey, this plan is supposed to keep the breast cancer away and that’s “evidence” enough for you.

WISDOM: Right now, you are quite possibly the most vulnerable to nutritional woo-woo that you’ve ever been. The term “snake oil” wouldn’t be a stretch to describe some of the unscrupulous recommendations easily available with the click of a mouse and the entering of a credit card number – and they’re looking for YOU!

Don’t be fooled. Actual food, with its synergy of nutrients and health properties can never be replaced with a supplement regimen. There’s nothing wrong with learning which supplements may complement your nutritional regimen, but in the end, please remember there’s a reason they’re called SUPPLEMENTS... they’re the supporting cast, not the diet lead.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash