According to the World Health Organization, 2.3 million women worldwide were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 276,480 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in women, making it the most prevalent type of cancer. The good news is that detection and treatment options have steadily improved since the 1980s, and survival probability of over 90% is possible, especially when breast cancer is detected early.
While undergoing breast cancer treatments such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, it is even more important that women find ways to keep their bodies as healthy as possible. One of the best ways to do this is by getting proper nutrition through a diet of anti-inflammatory foods. We spoke with registered dietitian Shayna Komar, RD and breast cancer survivor Theresa Williams to learn more about nutrition, breast cancer and making diet changes work in the real life.
Chronic Inflammation & Breast Cancer
Inflammation and anti-inflammatory foods play a role in the prevention and potential treatment of breast cancer. There is a wealth of research available on the relationship between chronic inflammation and a number of major health conditions: diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's and cancer—with researchers finding a direct link between chronic inflammation and an increased risk for breast cancer.
Conversely, an anti-inflammatory diet may have preventive benefits for each of these diseases. For those who have been diagnosed and are undergoing treatment, it may be even more important to reduce chronic inflammation through your diet. A recent study found that a long-term anti-inflammatory diet, implemented post-diagnosis, may lead to improved survival among women diagnosed with breast cancer.
When working to understand the link between inflammation and cancer, Shayna Komar, RD, a licensed and registered oncology dietitian with Cancer Wellness at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, suggests that we start by defining the two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
Komar explains, "Inflammation is sometimes confusing, because it may seem contradictory. On one hand, inflammation is a healthy process, allowing the body's ability to heal itself. When you have an infection or injury, the immune system releases white blood cells and chemicals to fight off the infection or repair damaged tissue." This is acute inflammation, the good inflammation.
When inflammation persists, it may become dangerous; a condition called chronic low-grade inflammation. "When you don't have an infection or injury, inflammation can potentially damage healthy tissues. Chronic, low-grade inflammation is inflammation that never really resolves. It's the opposite of 'good' inflammation and may actually damage DNA," says Komar.
This is particularly troublesome for those who are undergoing treatment for cancer as it potentially fuels the tumor. Komar shares, "Chronic inflammation can produce molecules called cytokines, which stimulate the growth of blood vessels that bring oxygen and nutrients to the tumor. The process also may generate molecules called free radicals that further damage the DNA. These inflammation side effects may help sustain and fuel cancer growth."
Eating an Anti-Inflammatory Diet during Breast Cancer Treatment
When looking for ways to keep chronic inflammation at bay, research consistently points to four key lifestyle factors: exercise, reducing stress, managing weight and getting proper nutrition. When it comes to nutrition and inflammation, this means including anti-inflammatory foods and excluding inflammatory foods.
One way to think about this is to adopt the mindset of crowding out the bad with the good; including as many anti-inflammatory, whole foods as you possibly can in your diet to weed out the inflammatory foods that can be especially damaging during cancer treatment.
Komar provides clarity on the role of anti-inflammatory foods during cancer treatment, saying, "Certain food components can affect inflammation pathways in your body. It is like a fire: what you eat can either put 'fuel' to the fire by eating many foods that cause inflammation or you can slow the fire by following an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle."
5 Anti-inflammatory Foods to Include during Treatment
During treatment, it is important to look at the overall diet you consume instead of focusing on individual foods. Komar encourages patients to look at nutrition as a part of their treatment plan, stating that nutrition "has to be a part of the medical protocol because a patient needs to stay strong, decrease side effects and maintain weight during treatment."
Research indicates that by consistently focusing on healthy diet patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, you can reduce inflammation. Komar agrees: "The Mediterranean diet, consisting of colorful foods, is full of foods that can fight low-grade chronic inflammation during treatment. It is all about focusing on your pattern of eating as opposed to choosing a few particular foods to reduce inflammation."
Additionally, choosing anti-inflammatory foods during treatment can help with some of the symptoms often associated with radiation and chemotherapy. Komar says that "fatigue, body pain, bowel issues, anxiety, depression, poor sleep habits and unintentional weight gain or loss" are just some of the symptoms that following an anti-inflammatory food plan can help to reduce or alleviate.
With this in mind, we look at five types of food to include during treatment, each with anti-inflammatory properties that are backed by research and by experts in the field.
Fruit is nature's candy. Whereas refined sugar is inflammatory and should be avoided during treatment, fruit is anti-inflammatory. It helps provide much-needed energy by giving a boost of natural sugar, and you don't get the sugar crash of a refined-sugar product because fruit contains fiber, which slows down the metabolic process and stabilizes blood sugar.
Of all the beautiful fruits available to us, berries are the star of the show to reduce inflammation for those undergoing treatment. Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries are high in antioxidants and are just a few of the many berries that are suggested as part of an anti-inflammatory diet. Additionally, the anthocyanins that produce berries' beautiful colors are also a powerful phytochemical that may provide anti-inflammatory properties.
2. Cruciferous Vegetables
There is a reason your mom always asked you to eat your greens. Veggies provide nutrients that are vital to fighting inflammation and maintaining proper body function. Packed with vitamins and minerals, veggies are also an excellent source of fiber.
Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, arugula, collard greens and even wasabi are just a few of the varieties in a group of plants called cruciferous vegetables. These veggies are recognizable for their distinct odor and sometimes bitter flavor and are often touted for their anti-cancer properties. These nutrient-rich veggies contain carotenoids, a type of antioxidant, as well as vitamins C, E and K, folate, minerals and fiber.
A staple of the Mediterranean diet, legumes are a category of vegetables that includes beans, peas and lentils. Legumes provide some of the highest amounts of fiber of any food and are also an excellent source of plant-based protein.
Fiber is key to reducing inflammation, and the consumption of legumes has been shown to have an impact on the body's immune function. A diet high in fiber has even been found to protect against certain cancers, including breast cancer.
4. Herbs and Spices
Often overlooked as a source of nutrition, herbs and spices provide excellent anti-inflammatory properties. In addition to eating a wide variety of veggies and fruits, Komar shares, "It is also important to incorporate herbs and spices such as turmeric, garlic, ginger and cinnamon to help decrease inflammation."
Turmeric is a major source of curcumin, a micronutrient that has long been known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. When adding turmeric to recipes, also add a pinch of black pepper to boost absorption of curcumin.
Ginger is a root that can reduce inflammation and pain, making it extremely helpful to those undergoing treatment. Studies have also found that consuming ginger helps alleviate the nausea and vomiting that many patients experience with chemotherapy.
Cinnamon is a spice that has been commonly used since 2800 B.C. It is being studied for its potential in cancer therapy and has been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Garlic isn't just a delicious way to add depth of flavor to your dishes. It's also a rich source of selenium, and its sulfur-containing compounds are being studied for their possible effect on carcinogens.
Protein is essential to the formation, maintenance and repair of body tissues. Ensuring that you get an adequate amount of protein in your daily diet is especially important during treatment in order to maintain muscle mass.
In addition to being an excellent source of lean protein, fatty fish is also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to lowering inflammation. Fatty fish, like salmon, trout, albacore tuna, Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, anchovies, sardines and even mussels, provide an excellent dietary source of omega-3s and lean protein.
Making It Work in the Real World
On February 20, 2020, at the age of 38, Theresa Williams was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 3C. With no known family history of breast cancer and no breast cancer gene mutation, Theresa likes to say that she "hit the unlucky lottery."
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so did Theresa's treatment protocol. On March 11, 2020, she began 8 rounds of dose-dense chemotherapy, underwent a double mastectomy, had 25 rounds of radiation, endured a number of complications and in July 2021 underwent her final reconstructive surgery.
Theresa is now on a journey of healing and shares her story of hope, faith, gratitude and perseverance, along with the way in which she utilized the healing properties of food, both for comfort and to reduce inflammatory symptoms, during treatment. One of the challenges that comes with cancer treatment therapies is that they can make patients feel sick and tired, which can create issues in adhering to any type of diet.
To help solve this issue and to combat the side effects of her treatment, Theresa focused on a diet rich in variety with fruit, veggies, lean protein, herbs and spices, whole grains, nuts and seeds. She also found comfort and nutrition in teas and broths. "I sipped on broth or tea a lot! It had a dual purpose for me: it kept me hydrated, which is critical to battling side effects during treatment, and the warm tea was comforting—it felt like a hug in a mug."
Theresa shares that she especially enjoyed sipping Beyond Broth, as well as organic chicken broth and decaffeinated green tea. She would typically start her day with lemon ginger tea and also sipped peppermint tea with licorice and ginger-turmeric tea. Each of these varieties helped settle her stomach, and the ginger and turmeric have anti-inflammatory properties that were helpful with treatment side effects.
Theresa found that these foods provided her with nutrients and comfort, and they helped with mouth sensitivities, dryness and soreness caused by her treatments. "If I was having days where my mouth was dry, I would add in more tea and broths and stayed away from crispy foods. I would eat dishes that were soft and fluffy, like potatoes, eggs, grits or smoothies and even add in comforting soup dishes with soft veggies."
Theresa also adds that texture and temperature became challenging for her: "I had to eat lukewarm-to-warm foods due to mouth sensitivity." Her advice: "The type of food you may be able to handle during treatment may change over time. Keep trying, be flexible and focus on eating small portions slowly and frequently."
In addition to her nutrition choices, Theresa found that taking walks helped increase her appetite, practicing restorative yoga provided calm, and Epsom salt baths felt amazing to her sore and tired body.
The Bottom Line
If you or someone you love is going through treatment, take care. Take care of yourself and take care of your body with practices that will reduce inflammation and enhance your treatment and recovery.
Ask your doctor for a referral to an oncology dietitian to receive a nutrition treatment plan designed specifically for you. Registered dietitians will be able to work with your individual diagnosis to create a plan that works with your needs and preferences.