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“Food is a powerful arsenal against disease,” says Lynda McIntyre, R.D., L.D., an oncology nutrition specialist with Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Consuming plant-based foods, which are rich in antioxidants, helps to protect the body’s cells from damage and decrease your risk of cancer.”
HCGH Oncologist Nicholas Koutrelakos, M.D., agrees, also noting that “eating fruits, vegetables and grains that contain beta carotene and vitamin C can help prevent cancer-causing carcinogens from forming and help to reduce obesity and heart disease.”
“I encourage patients to ‘eat the rainbow;’ in other words, eat brightly colored fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants,” says McIntyre. “Try to consume seven to eight servings of fruits and vegetables each day (three servings of fruit/four servings of vegetables). A serving size is a half cup, and you should try to eat at least one cup at every meal.”
Add Color and Spice To Your Diet
- Foods that are orange and dark green (high in beta carotene): spinach, mangoes, carrots.
- Oranges! One orange contains every anti-cancer phytochemical that has been discovered. Part of the power of the orange is in the zest – adding it to salads increases the nutrition density of that food.
- Cruciferous vegetables: broccoli and kale (four to five times per week).
- Vitamin C-rich foods daily: strawberries, citrus, mango, bell peppers, kiwi.
- A variety of fruits and vegetables – not just one color – but three to four colors.
- Plenty of fiber: 30 grams per day from whole grains, whole wheat, beans (kidney, red, lentils, garbanzo, legumes) and peas.
- A combination of foods. Certain foods can maximize nutritional impact when combined. Foods containing beta-carotene, combined with certain fats, bolster nutrition. For example, carrots dipped in hummus and sautéing spinach in olive oil increases the absorption of the beta-carotene. When we combine foods that contain iron with those containing vitamin C, the absorption of iron is increased. For example, a spinach and strawberry salad.
- Foods containing Omega 3 fatty acids. “Our bodies do not make these,” says Dr. Koutrelakos. “They have great nutritional benefit and are only found in foods that we eat, such as fish and beans.
- Herbs and spices (dried is acceptable and has more concentrated antioxidant benefit):
- Turmeric and curry are healthy additions.
- Cinnamon: Just a half teaspoon has as much antioxidant properties as a half cup of raspberries. Add cinnamon to everything you can think of – cereal, apples, coffee – and it will increase the nutrition density of your food.
- Thyme and oregano are powerful antioxidants – just a half teaspoon provides a lot of health benefits.
Beyond Fruits and Vegetables
- Eat lean protein: turkey breast and chicken breast. You can include lean red meat once a week.
- Your cooking method is important. Keep it “slow and low” temperature whenever possible. Be careful when grilling not to char.
- Marinades with lemon and rosemary or wine and beer help to decrease cancer-causing agents in grilling.
- Limit alcohol intake to three to four times per week.
- Exercise/activity is as important as diet. Studies have shown that people who are sedentary and obese are at a higher risk of getting colorectal cancer. Obesity also can increase your risk of developing breast cancer.
- “Maintain a normal body weight. Seventy percent of my patients are overweight,” says Dr. Koutrelakos. “That is directly related to cancer. I am seeing cancer in younger patients, too, who are eating the wrong foods and foods that are too high in fructose (sugar) resulting in an increased body mass index (BMI).”
- Keep fat intake low. High fat intake can increase your risk of developing some types of cancers.
“Cancer treatment” is to “team” as “cancer recovery” is to “village” – an unexpected, but true analogy. With fall arrive new sports seasons, carpools for school athletics practices, and evenings and weekends of cheering at games. We make commitments to those who need us, and if a friend, family member, neighbor or coworker is sick, it might be time to join that person’s care team. A cancer support team also carpools, cheers, and rises to the challenges of each stage, each season, of the disease. Cancer patients often find themselves being cared for by a team. Various healthcare professionals join forces to provide chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, nutrition, physical rehabilitation, and pharmacotherapy. The medical team is only a part of patient care, however. Many people outside the healthcare staff must join together as the village supporting the patient toward wellness. Just like a team requires many players in different positions playing their best to win the game, so too the patient needs all team members in place – physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dieticians, physical therapists, spiritual advisors, family, and friends. Even coworkers, bosses, and neighbors are needed to bridge the gaps in daily routines disrupted by time consuming, exhausting, and costly therapies.
Who can argue with the assertion that every patient needs an advocate? One of the most valued members of the village is that person sitting at the hospital bedside who can step in when the nurse is helping another patient, the IV pump is beeping or an extra blanket is needed. While hospitalized, a sedated or uncomfortable inpatient may not be able to ask for help. An advocate at the bedside can assure that questions are answered, needs are met, and treatments are administered properly. A bedside advocate can observe more details of the patient’s condition over time and give essential feedback to the healthcare team. Vital signs and lab work tell only part of a patient’s story and an advocate can assure that each team member knows the problems that need to be addressed. Once s/he is out of the hospital, a fatigued or anxious outpatient might forget a medication dose or miss an appointment. A team member helps keep everything on track.
Recovery from a complicated disease such as cancer is a challenge from every perspective – scientific, medical, social, psychological, sexual, personal. Each member of the village brings his or her own special skills and gifts to this process. Compassion, empathy, physical strength, motivation, cooking, cleaning, and monitoring of dosages, symptoms, lab results and x-rays will all be required. Recognizing depression, withdrawal and repressed rage falls to the team members who see the patient every day. The medical professionals see the patient only intermittently and can miss important milestones in the patient’s progress during and after treatment.
Each person’s needs during an illness are different. One person might greatly appreciate if you bring over meals, while another might want you to bring your pug to visit. A coworker might appreciate if you bring by some magazines or movies. A neighbor might be grateful if you help vacuum or mow the lawn. The message is the same – battling cancer requires a team and recovery takes a village.
The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Caregiving A to Z: An At-Home Guide for Patients and Families helpfully guides the cancer patient’s support team through the many challenges of life during cancer treatment. The writing is clear and straightforward with advice on topics ranging from anxiety to fever to weight changes. Breakthroughs in medical research have resulted in more aggressive, sophisticated and successful oncology therapeutics. The winning playbook for cancer treatment is longer and more complicated, but with the right team in place, victory is achievable.
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Johns Hopkins OB/GYN Francisco Rojas, M.D., discusses various types of breast lumps and what you can do about them.
Q: How common are lumps in the breast?
Breast lumps are common, particularly in young women in their late teens and early 20s. Women also may feel a breast lump during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Lumps in older women tend to be less common but more dangerous.
Q: What causes breast lumps?
Most breast lumps are benign or “normal;” however, breast lumps also can be caused by cancer. We cannot always explain what causes benign breast lumps.
Q: What are the different types of breast lumps?
Fibroadenomas are benign masses in the breast. They are not cancer and will not become cancer. They occur most often in younger women but also can happen in later years. Cysts are fluid-filled lumps that may cause pain and are usually benign. Other tumors are less common, can be benign or malignant and should be removed. The important thing to remember is that breast cancer also can present as a lump.
Q: What should you do if you detect a lump?
Any change in the breast should be evaluated by your physician or provider. Your provider will need to know when you noticed the lump and if it has changed in any way; also tell your provider about any changes in the skin or nipple discharge and if you notice any other lumps or changes in the breast or armpit. Tests such as an ultrasound, mammogram or MRI may be ordered.
Q: How are breast lumps treated?
Treatment is determined by the type of breast lump. Most often, a biopsy of the lump will be needed to determine the type. Fibroadenomas can be watched over time for changes. Cysts can be drained with a needle to remove fluid. Other tumors and breast cancer must be removed by a surgeon.
Q: Is there anything you can do to prevent breast lumps?
You may not be able to prevent breast lumps, but for your breast and overall health it is important to eat a healthy diet with fruits and vegetables. Do not smoke, and consume alcohol only in moderation. Exercise and maintain a healthy weight. Perform self-breast exams once a month and have breasts examined annually by a medical provider. Report any changes in your breasts to your provider as soon as you notice them.
Q: Who is at the greatest risk for developing breast lumps?
Anyone can develop a lump, but people who have a prior personal history of breast cancer or family history of breast cancer are at a higher risk of developing a malignant tumor.
We all remember that special food our parents used to feed us when we were sick as kids. As adults, it seems reasonable that those same comfort foods would help us feel better as adults, but many times that is not the case. In the new age of gluten-free, anti-inflammatory, plant-based, low GI, diets all promoting health and anti-cancer benefits however, how are we supposed to know what’s right for us when we are sick?
We all know that one of the major side-effects of chemotherapy is nausea. This can lead to loss of appetite and weight loss at a time when you need those nutrients most. A healthier diet can help with those tummy troubles. Either way you look at it, a healthier diet can lead a cancer patient down the road to a faster recovery.
Some changes will be obvious. Processed and pre-packaged foods, the red velvet cheesecake at your favorite restaurant, are almost certainly bad. Others may not be so obvious. Multiple sources list vegan diets as optimal, but this is up to the individual. Cutting back on red meat is a start as many tend to find it has a metallic taste after treatment. Non-animal proteins such as beans and nuts will be easier to digest. Vegetables are going to be the most important food group for cancer patients, specifically leafy greens. Easy to digest whole grains are also important.
With all this knowledge, there are definitely some foods you can, and should, still eat.
Still not feeling great? Chemocare
has some great advice for how to prevent nausea and continue eating when you need those nutrients the most. My personal favorite for stomach problems is eating smaller meals throughout the day instead of two or three big ones.
The title of this post is a quote attributed to Susan McHenry, from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo
“Cancer.” The first thought we may have when seeing someone without any hair or eyebrows.
Hair loss can be one of the greatest fears for a cancer patient. Many patients about to undergo chemotherapy shave their heads to avoid the experience of watching their hair thin and disappear. Why does this hair loss occur and why don’t all patients undergoing cancer treatment lose their hair? Medication administered to target and kill cancer cells is commonly referred to as “chemotherapy.” Many patients whose cancer treatment includes chemotherapy will lose their hair because of the mechanism of action of these medications. Some cancer patients undergo radiation treatment as well. Radiation may also result in hair loss.
Alopecia is the clinical term for loss of hair from the body. Alopecia can be in a specific area of the body, such as the scalp, or all over the body. Hair grows out of follicles and is characterized by a long growth phase, a transitional phase, and a brief resting phase, after which the hair falls out. One mechanism by which chemotherapy works is to kill off rapidly reproducing cells. Cancer cells and hair cells both divide constantly- and for this reason are targeted by many forms of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy speeds the progress of hair to the resting phase, resulting in a sudden onset of hair loss. Cancer patients receiving particular types of drugs, however, may not experience hair loss. Medications targeting specific cells or parts of cells or those that attack cancer by boosting a patient’s own immune pathways are unlikely to affect hair growth.
Since each medication has a slightly different onset of action and duration of effect, hair loss from chemotherapy may occur within a week or not until several weeks after treatment. Hair loss may be partial or total. Hair will usually return several weeks after treatment is completed. New hair growth may be a different color or texture from what it was prior to treatment, but the change is rarely permanent. Radiation therapy also destroys rapidly growing cells, so hair follicles in the area targeted by radiation may be destroyed. Hair loss in these areas can be permanent. If hair does return, any alteration in texture or color may be permanent because the goal of radiation is to alter and remove treated cells to prevent their regeneration. Radiation may target every cell in its path, while chemotherapy’s long-term effect is to permanently destroy only cancer cells.
Every cancer patient is different. Each person’s experience of hair loss is highly personal. One close friend might have a response you expect, another might surprise you. Be open and forthright and your friend or family member will appreciate your support. When one of my friends had hair loss during chemotherapy, she welcomed the hand-me-down hats from another friend whose sister had gone through chemo. A different person may not have wanted these hats. Sensitivity and empathy goes a long way. Years later, my friend and I still laugh about the wonderful experiences we had because she was bald and wearing a bold hat. It seemed we always got the best table in the restaurant and the most attentive service. Once, we got special attention from a rock star signing CDs after a concert. We’re convinced it was the crazy hat.
Websites for organizations such as the American Cancer Society, Johns Hopkins Medicine and the National Cancer Institute offer useful information about coping with chemotherapy-induced hair loss. The comedian Jay London has said, “I was going to buy a book on hair loss, but the pages kept falling out.” Nonetheless, there are many helpful text references including Cancer Caregiving A to Z: An At-Home Guide for Patients and Families and Learn to Live Through Cancer: What You Need to Know and Do.
When you get a cancer diagnosis, it is natural to panic, get depressed, and feel angry. But, as Dr. Agus says in A Short Guide to a Long Life, take it not as a death sentence, but as a wake-up call and an opportunity to take control of the health of your own body by learning all you can, studying your options, and going forth with the best treatment that you and your doctor have decided on, all with the best positive attitude you can muster. But don’t become so micro-focused on this one area of your health that you let other areas of your life get pushed aside or forgotten, such as the simple joys of playing with an animal friend or eating a delicious meal.
You know your health is all wrapped up like a rubber band ball with your emotions, your lifestyle, and your attitude. More than anything, eating can be the most important and healthy thing that you can do to guarantee your body receives the raw materials to fight the growth of cancerous cells and to keep the rest of your body humming along in fine shape.
I am going to list a few of my favorite cookbooks from Howard County Library System for those who want to have some new recipes for themselves, a family member, or a friend who may be living with cancer and going through radiation and/or chemotherapy treatments. They may need some help with preparing a nourishing meal, especially if they have a decreased appetite and not much energy. Don‘t forget, drinking lots of fluids is super important, so check out the great drinks and smoothie recipes too–they are great for throwing in healthy ingredients!
The most beautifully illustrated book of clean, green, and fresh recipes is No. 4, but my favorite is No. 1 because it is written as if there is a helper there with you as you plan to make a tasty recipes with notes of interest on how certain ingredients are beneficial or may help with treatment side-effects. For instance, one note says that metal, as in silverware, can often have a bad taste or feel in your mouth when you are getting cancer treatments. So, the suggestion is to go get some pretty plastic ware so that your eating implements are not an impediment to having some yummy healing food.
My son, who underwent two radical craniotomies for brain cancer, said that it was the preparation of the food and often the smell of the cooking, and even sometimes the energy to do the chewing, that really didn’t make eating appealing. Things that could be prepared quickly were helpful. What he appreciated the most was cold things like yogurt, ice cream, fresh fruit shakes, and smoothies. Simple things like crackers and dips or hummus, omelets, cereal or even ramen noodles were preferred as well.
What helped my son the most? Someone who was there providing love and support as well as a full pantry and refrigerator with lots of good-for-you ingredients for wholesome recipe options, especially as he felt better and began to want to experiment with more foods and flavors as his health, energy, and well-being improved. You will find a treasure-trove of great recipes in these books to complement any lifestyle or condition, and remember healthy eating is for all of us always –and thanks for reading my story.