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Jefferson Health

Home of Sidney Kimmel Medical College

What Foods to Eat & Avoid During Breast Cancer Treatment

When you’re battling a disease like breast cancer, a nutritious diet can be one of your strongest allies in the fight.
Photograph of Dr. Nicole Simone in her white coat.
Dr. Nicole Simone is a professor and co-leader of the Breast Care Center at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center.

The ancient Greeks said it best: Let food be thy medicine.

What you eat and drink can be just as powerful as the medications you take to help you stay healthy. When you’re battling a disease like breast cancer, nutritious foods and healthy diet regimen can be your strongest allies in the fight. Both the number of calories you consume and the quality of those calories can affect your long-term prognosis.

Nicole Simone  the co-leader of the Breast Care Center at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson, has researched the effects of nutrition on breast cancer outcomes both in the laboratory and in the real-world with patients.

“Eating healthy has long been a recommendation for people who have survived cancer,” said Dr. Simone. “In the research we’ve done, we’re seeing that eating healthy—and decreasing calories—is an important consideration before and during the treatment process as well.”

Cancer Loves Sugar as Much as You Do
Cancer has a sweet tooth. The sugar you have circulating in your body is the perfect fuel to help cancer grow and metastasize—or spread to other parts of the body beyond where it initially started. Consuming less sugar, therefore, is an important tactic for helping to slow this growth and minimize the chance for experiencing a recurrence after your treatment.

The proof? Dr. Simone points to PET scans, a diagnostic tool used to see if cancer has metastasized.

“During a PET scan, the patient is injected with a dye made primarily from sugar, which then highlights where the cancer has traveled throughout the body,” said Dr. Simone. “This dye and the scan works because they take advantage of the fact that cancer needs sugar to survive.”

Dr. Simone says this is evidence that consuming a diet high in sugar is giving cancer exactly what it wants.

Salad grain bowl with roasted chicken and vegetables

Healthy grain bowl packed with health proteins, nutrient-rich vegetables and dark leafy greens..

The Better Approach – Maintain, Don’t Gain, During Treatment
The hard truth is up to 90% of women gain weight during the first year of cancer treatment and this has directly been shown to increase the chance of the cancer coming back. There are several challenges working against patients during this difficult time, including:

  • Stress: Difficult times, like undergoing breast cancer treatment, can ramp up your stress hormones, which can lead to weight gain.
  • Estrogen-receptor blockers: Medications prescribed during treatment that are helpful to treat cancer, such as Tamoxifen, block the normal functions of estrogen—and can slow your metabolism and lead to weight gain.
  • Steroids: Steroids are also another weight-gain culprit, which are frequently used during treatment to help with the harsh side effects of chemotherapy.

Given these hurdles, it’s easy to see how weight gain can happen during treatment. As hard as it is, it’s in your best interest as a patient to do everything you can to reverse this trend.

“Our studies have shown that maintaining or losing weight during treatment leads to the best possible outcome,” said Dr. Simone. “Patients who are able to do this generally have fewer cancer recurrences and better long-term survival rates.”

Dr. Simone suggests patients focus on high-quality foods—such as lean proteins and fruits and vegetables—to get the “right” kind of calories to keep your body in top shape during treatment.

“The team here at Jefferson is focused on you as a whole person, not only the part of your body that has cancer,” said Dr. Simone. “We’ll help you build a nutritional approach that will complement and increase the benefits of the other aspects of your treatment.”

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