Every October, pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness show up. This extra attention helps save lives as people focus on prevention strategies such as regular mammograms and genetic testing. But although these measures are critical, incidence of breast cancer remains high. About 12 percent of American women will cope with a breast cancer diagnosis.
One prevention and survival strategy needs more attention – your diet. Doctors and people diagnosed with cancer must focus more on what patients eat, because making simple changes in diet can significantly improve one’s odds against breast cancer.
Right now, Americans’ dependence on processed foods and convenient, budget-friendly fast foods contributes to cancer. Because the Western diet is high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as corn and soybean oil, and in simple sugars, many people experience low-grade inflammation linked to obesity. This increases the risk of breast cancer, especially in women past the age of menopause.
Inflammation interferes with cancer treatment. Numerous studies have shown that obesity and the Western diet induce changes in the body that make surviving breast cancer more difficult.
The immune system can’t respond as it usually would, so many cancer therapies, including hormone and radiation therapy, have a harder time working effectively. This gives cancer more of a chance to progress, spreading and growing throughout the body.
The good news is we now know more about how certain foods affect the body and ordinary functioning, including how food can improve survival chances after a devastating cancer diagnosis. We have known for years that food is medicine. In fact, many of our current pharmaceutical drugs have a natural compound – a plant part that could otherwise be food – as a key component. Now clinicians and researchers are using what’s known about food to improve patients’ response to therapy.
For example, several recent studies have found a link between decreasing chronic low-grade inflammation in the body and helping patients improve their odds against cancer. This is why making simple changes to the diet can have a major impact on breast cancer development and survival.
Doctors should talk more to their patients about the important role that diet plays. Although the body needs food with omega-6 fatty acids for brain function, bone health and normal metabolism, many Americans get almost four times as much omega-6 fat as people need to be healthy. Compounding the problem, most get too low of levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
These factors contribute greatly to inflammation that leads to cancer and other health problems, too. Not only does decreasing the amount of omega-6 fat and increasing the amount of omega-3 fat in the diet improve chances of surviving a breast cancer diagnosis, it also improves heart health and decreases complications associated with immune disorders such as arthritis and Type 2 diabetes.
Patients can also take action, without forgoing taste and convenience, by paying attention to how they cook and eat. Instead of cooking with vegetable oils such as corn oil, they should opt for olive oil.
Instead of grabbing the can of tuna packed in oil for a sandwich, select tuna packed in water. At restaurants and at home, people should be more mindful of dressings, margarine, mayonnaise and spreads, because these often contain many omega-6 fatty acids and are derived from soybeans or corn.
Instead, seek out alternatives made with olive or macadamia oil.
People must challenge themselves to add more cancer-fighting foods to their diet. Ask questions such as: Can you eat two more servings of fish each week instead of beef? Can you make a practice of finding foods enriched with DHA and EPA (the two most common forms of omega-3 fatty acids), or buy free-range or pasture-fed meats (omega 3s are higher when livestock eat grass instead of grain)? These tactics support a healthier, anti-inflammatory diet.
Together, we can make breast cancer awareness an exercise, not just for October, but one that’s tied to something people do every day: eating. Doctors and patients alike can do a better job of talking frankly about how certain foods can function as medicine.
When that happens, more people will be taking advantage of a powerful strategy that helps the fight against cancer become easier to win.
Linda deGraffenried is an associate professor of nutritional sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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