Every October, the influx of pink shows up everywhere — from ribbons to clothing to pen ink — as the designated color for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. 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, incidences of breast cancer remain high. About 12 percent of American women will cope annually with a breast cancer diagnosis, according to the National Cancer Institute.
One prevention and survival strategy needs more attention: diet. Doctors, as well as those they diagnose with breast cancer, must focus more on what patients eat because making simple changes in diet can significantly improve one’s odds against developing breast cancer.
Right now, Americans’ dependence on processed foods and convenient, budget-friendly fast foods contributes to cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Because the Western diet is high in omega-6 fatty acids like corn and soybean oil — as well as 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, coupled with a 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 throughout the body.
The good news is that researchers now know more about how certain foods affect the body, including how they 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. Clinicians and researchers are using what’s known about food to improve patients’ responses 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 developing cancer. This is why making simple changes to the diet can have a major impact on breast cancer development and survival.
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 people don’t ingest enough anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
These factors contribute greatly to inflammation that leads to cancer and other health problems. 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 breast cancer, 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 — as 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 I eat two more servings of fish each week instead of beef? Can I make a practice of finding foods enriched with DHA and EPA (the two most common forms of omega-3 fatty acids)? These tactics support a healthier, anti-inflammatory diet.
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, Ph.D., is an associate professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.