Foods to Reduce Breast Cancer Recurrence Risk

Diet can also help prevent the disease and support treatment

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Anyone who beats breast cancer has an important priority on their mind—doing whatever is possible to prevent it from coming back. While no one diet can promise to eliminate your chances of recurrence, what you eat is a risk factor you can control. Food can also play a role in preventing breast cancer in the first place, as well as supporting the body as it goes through treatment.

A breast cancer diet is not just one that is good for general health, but one that specifically incorporates foods with cancer-fighting properties, helps promote a healthy weight, and more.

The Power of Plants

As far as risk reduction goes, most experts recommend a plant-based diet. Filling your plate with plants means you'll be getting a diet that is high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. These foods also offer plant-based compounds such as polyphenols, which may help prevent and treat cancer through direct effects on cellular processes, and antioxidants, which can reduce oxidative-stress damage to cells.

Going plant-based has been shown to be cancer-protective and may fight cancer cells, as well as offer protection against myriad health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. A 2019 study suggested that a diet high in polyphenols led to a major reduction of inflammation in people with breast cancer.

Fiber especially has been studied and revered for its effect on helping rid the body of excess estrogen and for improving insulin sensitivity. This is important as a strong link exists between high levels of insulin and breast cancer (breast tissue has a large number of insulin receptors).

In addition, a plant-based diet rich in whole, unprocessed grains, nuts, beans, vegetables, and fruit is beneficial for balancing blood sugar levels and maintaining a healthy weight. Keeping a healthy weight over the course of your life has been shown to be important for cutting cancer risk, as a higher body weight means higher circulating estrogen levels. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, breast cancer survivors who are overweight are more likely to see a recurrence of cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends at least 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit every day. Try spreading your servings out through multiple meals and snacks—even at breakfast.

A good guideline choosing the best fruits and veggies? Color. Look for deep reds and purples, bright yellows and oranges, and dark greens. The more intense the color, the more nutrients the plants tend to have.

Cruciferous Vegetables

While all vegetables are considered healthy, there are several that may be especially beneficial for cancer prevention. Vegetables in the Brassica family contain sulfur compounds which have cancer-fighting properties.

Studies have shown that a phytochemical called sulforaphane appears to target breast cancer stem cells and can be an effective complement to standard cancer therapy for preventing a recurrence.

Sulforaphane-containing vegetables include:

  • Broccoli
  • Broccoli sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Arugula
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Bok choy
  • Watercress

Soy and Legumes

Soybeans and soy products have become much maligned over the years with regard to breast cancer risk. Recent research, however, reinforces that soy's isoflavones (plant forms of estrogen) may help prevent breast cancer—if they're introduced before puberty.

When consumed over a lifetime, these plant estrogens can help modulate estrogen absorption in the body, actually blocking estrogen receptors if there's too much in circulation (such as from external sources like plastics and beauty products).

Specifically, the isoflavone genistein has been found to be cancer-protective, acting as an antioxidant. However, too much genistein (for example, from supplements) may trigger tumor development, especially if taken as an adult or if you've previously had estrogen receptor-positive cancer.

Generally speaking, if you're a breast cancer survivor, it's best to avoid soy consumption at this time to reduce your risk of recurrence. Note that flaxseeds are also a source of isoflavones.

The safest way to consume soy if you're trying to prevent cancer (and have never had it before) is to eat unprocessed or fermented soy, such as edamame, tofu, or miso. Stay away from soy protein isolates (sometimes found in protein powders and protein-rich foods like veggie burgers), which are highly processed and refined, and may contain higher amounts of isoflavones.

Other beans and members of the legume family are nutritious, low in fat, high in protein, and rich in antioxidants and saponins. While they're not purported to prevent breast cancer specifically, they can be helpful for those trying to reach or maintain a healthy weight or improve their health in general.

Good choices include:

  • Beans such as garbanzos, black beans, kidney beans, etc.
  • Peas
  • Lentils, including green, black, brown, and red
  • Peanuts

Onions and Garlic

A fair amount of research suggests that fragrant alliums such as garlic and onions can help fight multiple types of cancer, especially those of the intestinal tract, ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, renal cell carcinoma, and possibly lung cancer.

A 2019 study out of Iran is one of several to suggest that they may be effective against breast cancer as well. Thanks to their specific plant compounds known as organo-sulfides, researchers theorize that consuming these alliums disrupts an important cellular process and prevents cancerous cells from spreading.

Berries and Citrus

Many fruits, especially fiber-rich berries and citrus, have multiple anti-cancer features including high amounts of folate, vitamin C, polyphenols, and antioxidants. Each of these compounds may have a direct effect on cancer prevention and may be especially helpful in reducing the risk of recurrence.

Specifically, one study found that berries contain numerous anti-inflammatory phytochemicals—resveratrol, quercetin, and ellagic acid, to name just a few—which are instrumental in bringing on cell death, or apoptosis. These phytochemical compounds can help prevent breast cancer by killing off dangerously multiplying cancer cells.

The best additions to a cancer-prevention diet are:

  • Cranberries
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Apples
  • Lemon
  • Peaches
  • Grapefruit

Herbs and Spices

Spices are a powerful tool in the arsenal of an anti-cancer diet. Several herbs and spices have even been considered as effective as some cancer-fighting drugs, but should never be used as a first-line treatment in place of traditional medical care. For best results, consume herbs and spices alongside a healthy diet and in conjunction with standard medical treatment.

Beneficial herbs and spices include:

  • Cinnamon: Phytochemicals in extracts of cinnamon appear to promote the death of cancer cells, according to several studies, including one published in 2018.
  • Curcumin: A substance found in the curry spice turmeric, this polyphenol has long been considered effective at preventing the growth of tumors. According to a 2016 review of literature, it does so through a complicated molecular process by encouraging the death of cancer cells and altering the activity of genes in breast cancer cells.
  • Black pepper: Phytochemicals isolated from black pepper have anti-cancer effects and are being investigated for use alongside other cancer treatments, according to 2019 research.
  • Ginger: Antioxidants in ginger appear to inhibit tumor formation and breast cancer cell proliferation, according to a 2017 review.

Fatty Fish

Omega-3 fatty acids are established cancer fighters that may inhibit breast tumor growth, but 2018 research suggests that the omega-3 derived from fish oil is better at preventing breast tumors than plant-derived forms. Most experts agree that adding fish to your diet three times per week is more effective than taking a supplement, as well.

Consider swapping a serving (or more) of red meat for these fatty fish:

  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Trout
  • Mackerel
  • Herring
  • Sardines

Coffee and Green Tea

Drinking coffee and green tea appears to have a protective effect against breast cancer, according to several studies. While caffeine may play a major role, there are other potent antioxidants found in coffee and green tea (chlorogenic acid and epigallocatechin gallate, respectively) that can boost your body's cancer-fighting processes as well.

For example, matcha may help strengthen the immune system and inhibit tumor cells from forming. The super-concentrated green tea powder was found to kill breast cancer stem cells, according to one 2018 study.

And a prospective study found that women who drank three to five cups of coffee per day had a slightly lower instance of breast cancer than those who drank two cups or fewer. While the exact mechanism of action is not fully understood, the phenolic acids in coffee seem to help with DNA detoxification and repair, along with reducing inflammation and promoting insulin sensitivity.

All that said, other studies have found a correlative effect between drinking coffee and increased breast cancer risk. This may be due to the fact that women who are more likely to drink coffee may also be more likely to drink alcohol or smoke—two habits also strongly correlated with increased cancer risk. More research is needed.

Foods to Limit or Avoid

Some foods have a direct impact on your cancer risk while others are linked to weight gain, which in turn raises your risk of cancer. It's well worth reviewing this list of what to limit or outright avoid.

Red Meat

Several studies have suggested that the type of saturated fat found in red meat and other animal byproducts may result in the development of breast cancer. As such, daily servings of red meat and processed meats (e.g., hot dogs, lunch meats) should be limited. Instead, build your plate around vegetables and consider meat a condiment, or cook it only on special occasions—especially if your favorite meat dishes are cooked at very high heats (such as when frying, broiling, or grilling). These elevated temperatures can cause toxic byproducts called advanced glycation end products (AGEs) to form, which may be carcinogenic.

Sugar and Sodas

Refined sugar has been linked directly to both elevated insulin levels and excess weight, both of which are risk factors for developing breast cancer and of having a recurrence. While artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin) don't seem to increase cancer risk in humans, the diet sodas in which they're used are linked with weight gain and altered immune function. To reduce your risk, avoid excess refined sugar and foods sweetened artificially in favor of small amounts of natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, stevia, and monk fruit.

Salt

Consuming high levels of salt or eating foods that have been preserved by curing may lead to increased risk of stomach, nasopharyngeal, and throat cancer. The moderate use of salt with food has not been shown to cause cancer, though reducing your overall sodium intake from processed and packaged foods may be helpful for general risk reduction.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a known carcinogen, and any alcohol intake should be modest or eliminated to keep your risk of cancer low. Any kind of alcohol that you consume may increase your level of circulating estrogen, and thus increase your risk of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.

Most experts recommend that breast cancer survivors either abstain from alcohol consumption or limit intake to no more than one drink per day (even better, just a few drinks per week).

A Word From Verywell

It's certainly rewarding to build good nutrition habits that can reduce your risk of cancer or its recurrence. While it's not always easy to make sweeping shifts in your diet, small efforts (for example, skipping the bacon in your breakfast sandwich, or only drinking wine on the weekends) can make a big difference not only for your cancer risk but for your overall health and wellbeing. If you're having trouble managing an anti-cancer diet, consider seeing a nutritionist.

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