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Nourishing Your Body and Mind: Nutritional Advice For Cancer Survivors

There are few things more confusing to those of us who have had a cancer diagnosis than dietary advice. From conflicting recommendations from well-meaning friends to advice in magazine articles and online blogs, we can easily become overwhelmed with mixed messages.

To bring more clarity to bear on the topic I spoke with registered dietitian Cathy Leman, who is also a survivor of ER/PR+ breast cancer. In this interview Cathy separates dietary fact from fiction and offers some evidence-based tips for eating a nutritionally balanced diet which nourishes body and mind.

Q: One of the most confusing things, particularly for patients who have hormonally driven cancer, is conflicting advice about consuming phytoestrogen foods (such as soy products). What is the latest scientific evidence on this often perplexing subject?

A: This is a topic where it’s critical to know the facts! There are four main classes of phytoestrogens, of which isoflavones, the phytoestrogen found in soy, is one. Within these classes there are analogs (relating to) and derivatives (derived from). It’s common to consider the term phytoestrogen as “one thing”, as well as view the impact of eating phytoestrogen foods to be the same for everyone.

Phytoestrogen means “plant estrogen” (phyto = plant). Plant estrogens are similar to, but not the same thing as the human estrogen we produce in our bodies, called “endogenous estrogen” (endogenous = produced from within). Research on phytoestrogens and hormone-receptor positive breast cancer is ongoing, yet current data generally supports the safety of eating phytoestrogen foods for the general population, women with benign breast disorders, those at risk, and even in survivors of breast cancer.

Scientific literature reports both benefits and risks, yet the unfavorable effects have been mainly suggested based on data from in vitro, animal or epidemiological studies. Clinical studies often report the absence of unfavorable effects.

Another consideration is that the metabolism of phytoestrogens is highly variable among individuals. Differences in gut microflora, use of antimicrobials, intestinal transit time and genetic variation all play a role.

Take home message: further studies are needed, we don’t yet have conclusive results, there are no recommendations to exclude phytoestrogen foods from the diet.

Q: We hear a lot of talk about adding nutritional supplements to our diet. Are these a good idea?

A: Food first! That’s my professional philosophy, and the science supports. There is room for supplementation, yet not just for the sake of supplementing. Diet is the star, supplements, as their name suggests, take the supportive role.

Q: Do you have any tips for cancer patients who are currently in treatment and may lack motivation to cook healthy meals because of taste changes, nausea or fatigue?

A: My expertise is in working with post-treatment survivors, so I always suggest cancer patients seek the guidance of an oncology dietitian for targeted advice to manage these side effects.

Q: Cancer doesn’t just affect our bodies, our emotional and mental health can also suffer too. What’s the role of diet in improving our overall well-being?

A: When we eat well, it helps us feel we’re doing what we can to be well, and it’s empowering to know you’re taking charge of your health. Also, when one improves their diet, other healthy habits tend to follow, such as getting regular physical activity, prioritizing sleep and managing stress. Also, our bodies and minds require certain nutrients for repair and to aid in transport and storage of the building blocks necessary for overall good health.

Q: For those of us diagnosed with breast cancer we run a real risk of treatment induced osteoporosis (loss of bone density). What advice can you offer us to minimize the impact of treatment on our bone health?

A: There’s much to consider with regard to osteoporosis risk. For example, dietary pattern, exercise type and frequency, calcium absorption rates, minerals and other compounds that impact absorption, and genetic risk factors (that’s not an exhaustive list!). I recommend working with a dietitian to asses individual risk and develop a plan to address any areas of deficiency.

Q: Finally Cathy, for readers who may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of overhauling our diet, what’s the one thing we can do right away that can start to move us in the right direction?

A: Abandon the idea of overhauling your diet. Instead, consider making small, incremental, sustainable habit changes over time.


About Cathy Leman

Cathy Leman helps survivors of hormone-positive breast cancer rebuild trust with food and their body, end food fear, confusion, and overwhelm, eat without stress and guilt, and gain peace of mind and confidence about nutrition, exercise and well-being, so they can rebuild their health after treatment.

Cathy is a registered dietitian, nutrition therapist and coach, personal trainer, speaker, and a survivor of hormone-positive breast cancer. Learn more Cathy and REBUILD, her private coaching program here: www.cathyleman.com

Can Diet and Exercise Reduce MPN Symptoms?

Can Diet and Exercise Reduce MPN Symptoms? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What can YOU do to make a positive impact on your overall MPN care? Researchers Dr. Jennifer Huberty and Ryan Eckert review the latest research on how movement and diet can benefit people living with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs).

Dr. Jennifer Huberty is an Associate Professor at Arizona State University. She focuses her research on the use of complementary approaches to manage symptoms and improve quality of life for patients living with myeloproliferative neoplasms. More about Dr. Huberty here: chs.asu.edu/jennifer-huberty.

Ryan Eckert currently works at Mays Cancer Center, home to UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center. Ryan is the Research Coordinator for the MPN QoL Study Group and assists in research related to complementary health approaches in myeloproliferative neoplasms and other hematological disorders. More about Ryan here: mpnqol.com/research-team.

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Transcript:

Ryan:

So, as far as the benefits of exercise for MPN patients, there’s many, and so, I guess starting with cancers as a whole, there’s a lot more research that’s been done in recent decades that looks at the effects of various forms of exercise and physical activity on other cancers. They just tend – researchers tend to do a lot more of that work in breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, et cetera.

And so, the research in exercise for MPN patients is actually really new, and nobody outside of Dr. Huberty in conjunction with Dr. Mesa and a few other researchers have done any research related to exercise specifically in MPN patients. Our yoga studies that we’ve done have been the first venture down that route for MPN patients. But, what we do know in general is that exercise has obviously systemic effects across the whole body.

So, you’re gonna get health benefits just in general from exercise, but as far as for MPN patients specifically, some of the things that we’ve seen with our yoga studies, which is obviously a form of physical activity, is that we’ve seen sleep improve in MPN patients, so we’ve seen a reduction in sleep disturbances or disruptions in their sleep, a quicker time to fall asleep, and then, less waking up throughout the night – so, just better sleep in general.

We’ve seen some reductions in fatigue that have been reported by MPN patients who have gone through our yoga studies, and then, we’ve also seen a few other reductions in some other symptoms, such as anxiety and reduced depressive symptoms, a little bit of reduced pain is another one we’ve seen. So, just in general, we’ve seen some of those effects on MPN patients through some of our yoga studies.

Dr. Huberty:

So, in terms of adding to what Ryan just said, I would just say that exercise – maybe yoga or walking – is good for your body. It’s good for your health. It’s a recommendation that we get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week. The more that MPN patients can be achieving that goal towards 150 minutes – yoga counting at that – the better off they’re gonna be, and it doesn’t have to be going for a run.

It can simply be going for a walk around the block. It can be standing at your desk when you’re working instead of sitting all the time. That’s not necessarily activity per se, but it is moving your body and less sedentary. So, I think just focusing on the more that patients can move their body every day, the better off they’re gonna be.

Dr. Huberty:                

So, yeah, the role of diet in MPN patients – so, this is the beauty about the quality of life study group, because we have all these wonderful investigators that are part of the team, and we do have Dr. Robyn Scherber, who’s at Mays with Dr. Ruben Mesa. She’s doing some work with keto diet right now, so it’s very new, so I don’t know if you’re familiar with the keto diet, but it’s very high-fat and very low-carbohydrate, extremely low levels of carbohydrates. I wouldn’t tell any patient to go start doing those things unless they’ve talked to their physician for sure, but we do know that based on how you eat does certain things to your body.

So, MPNs have high inflammatory markers, and so, we wanna decrease inflammation; we probably wanna eat foods that are going to be anti-inflammatory. So, berries, let’s say, is a good example of fruits that are anti-inflammatory, almonds are anti-inflammatory, and I’m not a dietitian by any means, it’s just that things that I know to be true for my own diet because everybody should be thinking about having an anti-inflammatory diet.

Processed foods are not healthy. They are higher-inflammatory. Breakfast foods, eating out, and the foods that you get when you eat out a lot are going to be more inflammatory than not. So, just those small things – lots of vegetables. Vegetables are very good. Lots of greens. But, there is research going on – again, just like exercise and yoga, it’s in its infancy because MPN has been an under-studied population for years, and we’re trying to power through and make that difference.