After I found out I had breast cancer, I dove into the research on what I could do. The good news is that you can greatly reduce your risk of getting breast cancer or having it come back by eating the Cook for Good way: home-cooked food made from organic fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. I’m going to enhance that program now that I know more about how to eat to reduce the risk of getting breast cancer again. I hope that even if it does come back, any lump grows so slowly that it doesn’t matter during my lifetime. Read on for my strategies of what to eat, what not to eat, and other actions to take. Most of these steps will protect you from other diseases of affluence too, such as other cancers, heart disease, and diabetes. Also see the related post My Breast Cancer Story.
Note: I have a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition, but I’m not a Registered Dietitian. The information here comes the linked peer-reviewed articles and two essential books: Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Super-Immunity and Dr. Michael Gregor’s How Not to Die. Also see Dr. Gregor’s excellent website Nutrition Facts for short videos that walk you through the peer-reviewed research on many topics, including breast cancer. You can also search PubMed for scientific papers on this and other health topics, which is run by the US National Institutes of Health.
How to eat to prevent breast cancer
Here are a few figures that blew my mind. The risk reduction below is for what you eat every day unless otherwise noted. Reduce your risk of breast cancer by:
- 62% if you eat mostly plants, limit alcohol, and maintain a normal body weight (source)
- 44% if you eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day and exercise the equivalent of 30 minutes of walking six days a week (source)
- 64% if you eat a cooked mushroom a day (source)
- 89% if you drink green tea and eat a cooked mushroom every day (source)
- 40% to 50% if you eat orange and yellow vegetables for carotenoids if you have dense breasts (source)
- 30% if you eat soy foods while young to protect against getting cancer and having it grow (source)
- 25% if you eat soy foods after a diagnosis of breast cancer to reduce recurrence and growth (source)
I’m also eating plenty of:
- Apples, red grapes, citrus fruit, and other fruit
- Celery, onions, garlic, and other vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables such as kale, collards, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and bok choy
- Whole grains
- Ground flaxseed and other seeds
- Spices and herbs, particularly turmeric, cinnamon, and oregano
What Not to Eat Unless You Want Cancer
- Animal protein, particularly red meat, processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and baloney, and grilled, barbecued, or smoked meat
- Fast food and ultra-processed food
- Fruit juice or sweetened drinks
- Too much alcohol. Max out with one drink a day for women or two for men. If you do drink, choose red wine. Better yet, skip it altogether. The World Health Organization says:
This might not be the answer people want to hear, but there is no safe level for drinking alcohol.
How to live to prevent breast cancer
- Encourage your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep, by not looking at your phone or other screens within an hour of going to bed, sleeping in a dark room, and timing your meals.
- Don’t smoke or be around others who are smoking. Second-hand smoke is dangerous too.
- Reduce your exposure to the plastics BPA and BPS which are found in store receipts, the lining of food cans, and many plastic drink bottles. I use a metal water bottle and usually store my food in glass jars instead of plastic containers.
- Avoid antiperspirants that contain aluminum, especially right after shaving. The National Cancer Institute says studies show mixed results, so this may or may not matter. This video from Dr. Gregor convinced me to switch to natural deodorant.
- Get checked. Depending on who you are, this might include monthly breast exams, a mammogram, a pap test, a prostrate check, or a colonoscopy. Early detection doesn’t prevent cancer, but it can catch it earlier, saving lives, misery, and money. Far better to get a lumpectomy than a mastectomy!
- Get checked early in the year if you can. If you live in the US, your insurance probably has an annual deductible and an annual out-of-pocket maximum like mine. We paid the maximum amounts for two years instead of one because my treatment extended over the New Year. Thank you, President Obama, for ObamaCare! Without that, we could have run through our retirement savings and been denied future health insurance because I now have a big pre-existing condition. Yet even with ObamaCare, one of the other women in the radiation waiting room worried about whether she could afford to get all the treatments her doctor recommended. To make matters worse, her husband was soldiering on with an injured knee until more money came in. We both needed Medicare for All.
- Support candidates who support Medicare for All, preventive medicine, and healthy living. It’s cruel that people in this wealthy country suffer without proper care. It’s outrageous that what you pay depends on the time of year that you get sick. It’s cruel, outrageous, and short-sighted that people don’t have access to enough tasty organic food, places to walk and play, clean water, fresh air, and healthy surroundings. It’s twisted that doctors and hospitals make money giving patients more treatment, but not helping them stay healthy. It’s immoral that the insurance industry profits by charging the highest rates it can while delivering the least care possible. Use this online calculator to see how much you and your employer could save with Medicare for All (BernieCare).
Be an active part of your medical team
At some point in your life, no matter what you do, you are likely to get sick. If you can, be an active part of your medical team. All the doctors, nurses, and technicians who helped me seemed caring and competent in their specialties. But they weren’t much help on other ways to avoid and reduce cancer.
What you eat matters. The American College of Nutrition advocates personalized dietary guidance to disrupt cancer, saying in a report about its 2017 annual meeting on the topic:
The importance of identifying dietary interventions cannot be overstated.
The notebook I received when starting treatment came with a booklet on nutrition. It said to eat lean protein, including beans, plus plenty of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. But the example menu had egg whites, tuna, lots of dairy, fruit juice, and lean protein.
The notebook also came with a letter from the staff Registered Dietitian offering to help us cope with side effects and any other nutrition concerns. I asked her opinion about eating turmeric and soy, especially during radiation treatment. (You don’t want to interfere with the radiation’s ability to kill cancer cells.) She said it was fine to eat soy, turmeric, and other spices as food but not to take them as supplements. I wish she had encouraged me to eat soy because later I found that it could reduce the chance of the cancer coming back by 25%. I asked my oncologist to review the list of diet and lifestyle changes I was making. She approved but didn’t offer any additions. No one mentioned the power of other superfoods like mushrooms, green tea, and sweet potatoes.
But because of my background, good fortune, and the sources mentioned above, I ate meals practically vibrating with nutrition. I exercised nearly every day and took the other steps that let me recover quickly and fully.
You have a lot of power!
I found it encouraging that I could avoid or delay so many medical conditions that could make me uncomfortable or worse. Many of these steps are wildly affordable and delicious. For example, I now put chopped mushrooms in many recipes. Better flavor, better health! As cooks, we can make a big difference in our own lives and the lives of the people we feed.
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