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'Hydrate, Gyrate, Masticate': A Professional Foodie's Guide to Eating Well for Breast Cancer Recovery
Melanie Young, a breast cancer survivor, food and wine marketing exec, and author of "Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor's Guide to Staying Fearless and Fabulous in the Face of Breast Cancer," advocates for developing health habits that will be easy to maintain after treatment.
By Melanie Young, Special to Everyday Health
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My journey into Cancer Land began in the beautiful wine region of Chianti Classico in Tuscany, Italy. I was on a business trip in July 2009 with my husband, David, when I found the lump in my left breast during a self-examination in the shower. I’ve always been diligent about getting annual mammograms, and the one from the prior year had been normal.
I own a wine and food marketing business and work with many international clients. One of the pleasures and perks of my profession is the opportunity to travel to beautiful places to learn and taste. But my jetsetter life came to a screeching halt when I was diagnosed with Stage 2A breast cancer a few weeks later. I was plagued with a sick, sour feeling in the pit of my stomach and overwhelmed by disbelief. There was no history of breast cancer in my family. And like many newly-diagnosed women, I blamed myself.
Did My Career Make Me Sick?
I was convinced my work-lifestyle — drinking great wines and cocktails, eating rich meals, jetting around for my job, not getting enough exercise, and juggling the stresses of running a business in New York City during a difficult economy — had sent me on the path to Destination Cancer.
Throughout my career I’d traveled through time zones, carrying a few excess pounds and plenty of stress. My habits looked like a "Do Not" list in the textbook of breast cancer prevention.
Studies have shown that excess weight, lack of exercise, too much alcohol consumption all can increase a woman's risk for breast cancer. I would also include excessive stress which can impact anyone’s health.
Soon after my diagnosis, I also learned I had a genetic predisposition to breast cancer: the BRCA 2 gene mutation. I elected to have prophylactic surgery to remove my ovaries and fallopian tubes, and to eliminate my elevated risk of ovarian cancer.Then came the soul-searching: I had to reevaluate how I was treating my body.
No ‘Time Out’ For Cancer
I needed a double mastectomy with reconstruction and five months of adjuvent chemotherapy. To prepare for both I made a diet, exercise, and stress management plan.
I didn’t want to get sick, and chemotherapy compromises your immune system and blood counts. I needed to keep running my business to earn an income. I wanted to be fearless and fabulous and get out and feel somewhat normal and in control of my life. I was not ready to compromise pleasure and good taste for any reason including cancer. I simply did not want to become a cancer shut in.
There was no “time out” for cancer.
I consulted with an oncology nutritionist and a physical therapist after surgery and throughout treatment, which is something I strongly recommend. I viewed my body as a machine that required healthier fuel and a well-maintained engine. Studies have shown cancer patients have a better chance of survival if they maintain a healthy diet. Too many patients (including me) experience compromised digestive systems and palates during treatment. I held fast to my mantra: “hydrate, gyrate and masticate.”
After my treatment concluded, I grappled with the subject of alcohol consumption. It is my profession, and I enjoy drinking wine and a cocktail or two. Doctors and nutritionists advise reducing or forgoing beverage alcohol during treatment. But, that does not necessarily mean forced abstinence forever. A study published earlier this year by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center found “the relationship between alcohol consumption and breast cancer survival is less clear…..Overall consumption before diagnosis was not associated with disease specific survival, but we found a suggestion favoring moderate consumption.” The study indicates that moderate consumption of alcohol may be beneficial in reducing the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death among all women.
"Moderate consumption” for most women is generally defined as no more than one drink per day. Also, beverage alcohol is also high in calories, so moderation makes sense for weight management.
Having cancer taught me to eat well to live better. Since adopting my diet and fitness plan I’ve felt great. My skin glows, and I am in better shape physically. People have told me I look ten years younger than before my diagnosis. I still dine out at great restaurants but with more temperance, and I appreciate a healthy home cooked meal more than ever, which means higher quality food and drink in smaller amounts and with greater appreciation.
Oh, I’m far from perfect! Sometimes I slip and have a too many bites or sips. When that happens, I say a silent prayer to J.C. at the Heavenly Gates of Food and Drink: Julia Child, the great cookbook author, TV cooking show host, and fellow breast cancer survivor.
Melanie’s Tip For a Healthy Breast Cancer Journey
- Keep a food diary.During cancer treatment, food may smell or taste unpleasant or is hard to digest. Nutritionists recommend keeping and any effects a specific food has on you during and after treatment.
- Eat safely. Maintain clean counters, utensils, and cutting boards. Avoid raw fish and unpeeled fruits. Wash your hands thoroughly before handling any food.
- Drink a lot…of water.Stay hydrated with healthy fluids to flush chemotherapy toxins and avoid becoming dehydrated, a common and potentially dangerous side effect of treatment.
- Retool your diet. Eat lean protein, green foods, healthy oils, and whole grains. Avoid processed, overly salted or sugary foods. Eat small portions and plain food. Many cancer patients crave some foods and are repulsed by other. During my treatment, I wanted boiled spinach, sliced papayas and fresh, juicy pineapples. Milk products other than Greek yogurt, did not agree with me, and the sight and smell of red meat — even to this day — did not appeal to me.
- Stick with a low impact exercise plan.I rebuilt my upper body and energy reserves through dance exercise, Pilates, stretching, and walking. The endorphins from steady exercise cleared my chemotherapy fogged brain, gave me more energy, helped reduced my stress, and put me in a good mood — all better to finish the journey and win the fight.
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