Lifestyle Changes That Support Breast Cancer Treatment

Lifestyle changes that may help improve survival and overall longevity, and lower the risk of recurrence.

Day in a life of female cancer patient - couple cooking healthy food at home.

Updated on May 31, 2023

If you’ve received a breast cancer diagnosis, you have probably been inundated with a flood of choices and changes to make. So how can you optimize your health and strengthen your resolve to not only manage your treatment of the disease, but also help prevent it from coming back? Here are some key steps to take:

Manage lifestyle factors

There are three crucial lifestyle factors that affect people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer: obesity, inactivity, and poor diet. By addressing these, you can increase the likelihood of improving your cancer survival and overall longevity. While more research needs to be done to understand how these factors impact breast cancer, research has shown promising trends.

What is the role of obesity?

Having increased amounts of body fat raises levels of estrogen, insulin, and inflammation, all of which may promote the growth of cancer. Carrying excess weight is not only associated with a higher chance of developing cancer, but also higher rates of recurrence (which is when a previous cancer returns). 

What is the role of physical activity?

Exercising regularly has been shown to lead to better outcomes for breast cancer patients. Past research suggests that people who were more physically active (that is, walking 3 to 5 hours per week) had up to a 50 percent lower risk of breast cancer recurrence and death from breast cancer or from any other cause, compared to people who exercised less.

What is the role of diet?

While there’s no one food that’s been shown to cause or prevent cancer, there are some you may want to consider minimizing or increasing in your diet. 

For starters, it makes sense to eat less saturated fat. There’s evidence that foods high in saturated fats (such as red and processed meats and fried foods) may increase cancer risk. Additionally, some research suggests that a diet high in unhealthy fat (like saturated fat) may be a risk factor for breast cancer survival, possibly because of its role in obesity.

Meanwhile, it’s a good move to eat more foods high in antioxidants and fiber and low in saturated fats, including fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Emphasize healthy oils like olive, canola, and peanut oils. For protein, focus on nuts, fish, and beans. 

What role does alcohol play?

There is a clear link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk—and the risk goes up with each daily drink. The general recommendation is to have no more than one alcoholic drink per day, but it’s best not to drink at all if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer. If you’re currently taking chemotherapy, alcohol may interfere with your medication.

What about the risk of smoking?

The links between breast cancer and smoking or not as clear as those between breast cancer and alcohol, but evidence suggests there is a risk to lighting up. Some research has shown that former smokers with breast cancer had an increased risk of recurrence, and that risk grew with the amount they smoked.

Should I take supplements?

There’s no evidence that dietary supplements can lower the risk of cancer recurring or improve survival rates. Some supplements may even harm cancer patients by providing an overload of certain nutrients or interacting with medications.

Speak with your healthcare provider to make sure you are getting the nutrients you need. Breast cancer patients may be at higher risk of osteoporosis because of the effects of chemotherapy on bone health, so it’s an especially good idea to make sure you’re getting your daily dose of calcium and vitamin D.

Improving lifestyle, improving survival

It’s important to be realistic when adjusting your lifestyle, and to avoid making too many changes too quickly. That said, when confronted with a major event like a cancer diagnosis, small changes may feel frustrating or even futile.

So, keep this in mind: As treatment for breast cancer improves, even little lifestyle tweaks can support treatments, helping you live a healthy life after diagnosis.

Article sources open article sources

Holmes MD, Chen WY, Feskanich D, Kroenke CH, Colditz GA. Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. JAMA. 2005;293(20):2479-2486.
Holick CN, Newcomb PA, Trentham-Dietz A, et al. Physical activity and survival after diagnosis of invasive breast cancer. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2008;17(2):379-386.
Uhomoibhi TO, Okobi TJ, Okobi OE, et al. High-Fat Diet as a Risk Factor for Breast Cancer: A Meta-Analysis. Cureus. 2022;14(12):e32309. Published 2022 Dec 8.
Pierce JP, Patterson RE, Senger CM, et al. Lifetime cigarette smoking and breast cancer prognosis in the After Breast Cancer Pooling Project. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2014;106(1):djt359.
American Cancer Society. Lifestyle-related Breast Cancer Risk Factors. Last Revised: September 19, 2022.

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