Nutrition Guidance During Treatment for Breast Cancer

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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual worldwide health campaign dedicated to increase the awareness of breast cancer and raise funds for research. The AICR/WCRF CUP reports on Breast Cancer Prevention and Breast Cancer Survivorship summarize the current research on diet, nutrition and physical activity. Angela Hummel is a clinical dietitian and specialist in oncology nutrition. She gets many questions from people getting ready to start treatment for breast cancer. Here are her answers to few of the most frequently asked questions.


Will treatment for breast cancer affect what I eat?

There are different treatment plans for breast cancer depending on type of breast cancer and stage. For those people with breast cancer who undergo surgery and/or radiation there generally isn’t a big impact on their nutrition. I often see treatment plans that include chemotherapy and/or hormone therapy affect nutritional intake more frequently.

With chemotherapy, someone may experience:

Appetite loss

  • Try eating your most nutritious meal during times of the day when you are most hungry.
  • Try taking a short walk before meals to help stimulate appetite.
  • Eat small, frequent meals instead of three normal meals throughout the day. Every calorie will count. Poor appetite can result in muscle loss, dehydration and malnutrition.

Nausea and Vomiting

  • Reduce the smells of food by opening windows when cooking, cook outside on a grill or eat foods cold or at room temperature.
  • Eat small, frequent meals to keep something in your stomach at all times.
  • Try dry foods like toast, crackers, pasta, or hot cereals.
  • There are different types of nausea and vomiting that can occur during chemotherapy – anticipatory, acute or delayed. There are specific medications that work for these different types of nausea and vomiting that you might experience. Talk to your healthcare team about your situation.

Bowel changes

  • Hydration is very important. Whether you are dealing with constipation or diarrhea, it is crucial to drink 8 (8-ounce) glasses of water or other beverage per day.
  • Try eating on a schedule to help regulate your bowel pattern.
  • Focus on fiber. If dealing with constipation, increase fiber intake by consuming vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. If dealing with diarrhea, choose soluble or viscous fibers from cooked or pureed vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes with the skin, avocado, and soft fruits like bananas, pears, peaches and applesauce.

With hormone therapy, the most concerning side effect is weight gain. Some tips to help:

  • Try not to get lackadaisical about eating. It can be easier to choose prepared packaged foods or even meals from restaurants when running to medical appointments.
  • Instead continue to monitor portion sizes even when eating away from home.
  • Keep healthy choices on hand like whole fresh fruit, whole grain crackers with nut butter spread, cut vegetables and water or other calorie-free beverage.
  • Choose mostly plant-based foods. The AICR New American Plate Challenge can help guide you towards a mostly plant-based diet. Sign-up today!
  • A recent study suggests that women who eat over five and a half servings of fruits and vegetables daily have a lower risk of breast cancer than those who eat less servings. Read the details here.
  • Do not skip out on exercise. Begin or continue a safe exercise program, even if for short periods at a time.
  • Strive for a healthy body weight. Of all the potential lifestyle links studied, the evidence that having a healthy weight improves breast cancer survivorship is the most consistent.

Fatigue can be overwhelming during treatment and beyond. There are ways to help improve fatigue.

  • Fluid intake is extremely important. Every day strive to consume 8 (8-ounce) glasses of water or another calorie-free beverage.
  • It seems counterintuitive but physical activity can help reduce fatigue. If able, aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. Take the talk test to determine your intensity level.
  • Consume adequate calories and protein. If you are struggling with treatment-related side effects, you might not be providing your body with the calories and protein it needs. Consider meeting with an oncology dietitian (RD/RDN) through your local cancer center. An RD can help you find ways to get the foods and liquids you need.

Use these tips to help you maintain a good nutritional status during treatment. If you are not able to eat a mostly plant-based diet, maintain a healthy weight, and get regular physical activity during treatment, strive to do so as soon as possible after treatment is complete. More information for breast cancer survivors can be found here.

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    Author: Angela Hummel

    Angela Hummel, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, is a consulting dietitian with AICR. She is passionate about helping people make positive diet and physical activity changes for reducing cancer risk and for healthier survivorship. She initiated and developed two oncology nutrition programs in cancer centers. Angela also uses her expertise with two AICR programs – the New American Plate Challenge, and the Nutrition hotline.

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