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Healthy Lifestyle for Breast Cancer Survivors

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Healthy Living
Fact Sheet

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Breast Cancer 101 (Interactive Multimedia)  - Living a Healthy Lifestyle
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Research Fast Facts: Obesity and Breast Cancer
Fact Sheet

Everyone can benefit from a healthy lifestyle. For breast cancer survivors, some healthy behaviors may lower the risk of breast cancer recurrence and improve survival. Other healthy behaviors have not yet been shown to impact breast cancer survival, but are part of a lifestyle that may help protect against other cancers and diseases.  

A healthy lifestyle includes:

Maintaining a healthy weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is important for everyone, but it is especially important for breast cancer survivors.  

For breast cancer survivors, being overweight increases the risk of [44-47,51]:

  • Breast cancer recurrence  
  • Breast cancer-specific mortality (death from breast cancer)
  • Overall mortality (death from any cause, not necessarily breast cancer)

Weight gain after breast cancer diagnosis may also increase these risks [48-51].This means heavier women and those who gain more weight after diagnosis are be more likely to have their breast cancer return and more likely to die from breast cancer or other cause compared to thinner women and those who gain little or no weight.

Body weight, hormones and breast cancer

Breast cancer survivors with higher body weight may have higher blood hormone levels than thinner survivors [52-53]. Higher blood hormone levels increase the risk of developing breast cancer and may explain the increased risk of breast cancer recurrence and death among postmenopausal survivors who are overweight [54].  

Learn more about estrogen and the risk of developing breast cancer.

Learn more about prolactin and the risk of developing breast cancer.

Learn more about insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and the risk of developing breast cancer.   

Body weight and other health risks

Being overweight and gaining weight also increase the risk of other health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes. Regular exercise and eating a healthy diet are the best ways to maintain a healthy weight. For more information on weight control and exercise, visit the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.  

Learn about body weight, weight gain and the risk of developing breast cancer.  

Eating a healthy diet

Diet and breast cancer survival

At this time, we do not fully understand how diet affects survival after breast cancer. Although increased body weight and weight gain appear to reduce survival, studies on dietary factors such as fat, fiber, fruits and vegetables have had mixed results [54-59].  

For example, findings from the Women's Intervention Nutrition Study showed reducing dietary fat intake may improve disease-free survival (survival without a recurrence) [56]. Women in this study who reduced their fat intake also lost weight, which may have played a role in their improved disease-free survival [56]. Other studies have not shown a survival benefit from a diet low in fat after treatment [57-59].

Healthy diet for breast cancer survivors

Breast cancer survivors should try to follow the same healthy diet that is recommended for everyone [60]. This diet, outlined below, promotes overall health and may help protect against different types of cancer and other diseases [60-63].

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight. (Survivors who are overweight or obese should limit high-calorie foods and beverages and increase physical activity to help with weight loss.)
  • Eat at least 2 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Choose 100 percent whole grain foods (such as 100 percent whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, millet and quinoa).
  • Limit red meat and processed meat. Choose chicken, fish or beans more often.
  • Limit "bad" fats (saturated and trans fats). These are found in foods such as red meat, fatty deli meats, poultry skin, full fat dairy, fried foods, margarine, donuts and microwave popcorn.
  • Eat "good" fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats). These are found in foods such as olive and canola oil, nuts and natural nut butters, avocado and olives.
  • Get enough vitamin D and calcium every day. For women ages 51 to 70, this means 600 IU of vitamin D and 1,200 mg of calcium. For men ages 51 to 70, this means 600 IU of vitamin D and 1,000 mg of calcium.
  • Limit alcohol intake to less than one drink a day for women and fewer than two drinks a day for men.

Adapted from the American Cancer Society’s Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Survivors [60] and Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D [63].

 

For a summary of research studies on dietary fat and breast cancer survival, visit the Breast Cancer Research section.

  

For a summary of research studies on body weight and breast cancer survival, visit the Breast Cancer Research section.  

Physical activity (exercise)

Being physically active is one of the best things you can do for your health. It helps you maintain a healthy weight and lowers your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes [42].  

Some studies suggest being active lowers the risk of [37-42]:

  • Breast cancer recurrence  
  • Breast cancer-specific mortality (death from breast cancer)
  • Overall mortality (death from any cause, not necessarily breast cancer)

How much physical activity gives a benefit?

Researchers often use MET (metabolic equivalent) hours to assess the total amount of activity a person gets. The more energy an activity requires, the higher its MET score. For example, one MET hour is the energy used to sit quietly for one hour, but walking for an hour scores from 2 ½ to 4 ½ MET hours (depending on how quickly you walk). More vigorous activities, like playing tennis, biking or swimming for an hour, score higher. Adding the MET scores of different activities gives a total number of MET hours.  

A pooled analysis that combined data from over 13,000 breast cancer survivors found that those who got 10 or more MET hours of activity a week (roughly three or more hours of moderate paced walking) had a 30 percent lower risk of death (from any cause) compared to less active survivors [42].  

Some findings suggest women do not need to do intense exercise to get a benefit. One study found activity equal to a 30-minute brisk walk several times a week improved survival [40].  

The American Cancer Society’s Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Survivors recommend breast cancer survivors [60]:

  • Avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activity as soon as possible after diagnosis
  • Get regular physical activity
  • Aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise per week
  • Do strength training exercises at least twice per week

  

For a summary of research studies on physical activity and breast cancer survival, visit the Breast Cancer Research section.

Other benefits of physical activity for survivors

Physical activity offers other benefits for breast cancer survivors. It can [65-69]:

  • Improve mood
  • Improve physical condition and movement
  • Improve body image
  • Increase sexuality
  • Increase energy
  • Maintain bone health 

Komen Perspectives  

Read our perspective on physical activity and breast cancer survival
(December 2010).*
 

Physical activity and lymphedema

Physical activity and lymphedema
Lymphedema (LIMF-eh-DEE-ma) is a condition where fluid collects in the arm (or other area such as the hand, fingers, chest or back) causing it to swell (edema). It usually occurs in the areas of the body that had surgery and radiation therapy. In the past, there was some concern that exercise might increase the risk of lymphedema in breast cancer survivors and worsen symptoms in those who developed the condition. However, arm exercises (such as weight-lifting) do not appear to increase the risk of lymphedema in survivors [70-72]. Moreover, studies now show weight-lifting (in a supervised research setting) can reduce symptoms in survivors with lymphedema, as well as improve body image, sexuality and physical strength [72-74]. Talk to your health care provider before starting an exercise program to manage lymphedema.

Learn more about lymphedema.  

Not smoking

Smoking and breast cancer survival

There is growing evidence that smoking decreases survival for women with breast cancer. A pooled analysis that combined data from about 10,000 survivors found that smoking increased the risk of recurrence and death from breast cancer [174]. The more women smoked, the higher these risks [174]. Moreover, smoking doubled the risk of death from any cause for survivors [174].

Smoking and other health conditions

Stopping smoking, or never starting to smoke, is one of the best things you can do for your health. Smoking causes [175]:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Bladder cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Larynx cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Throat and mouth cancers

The benefits of quitting smoking

For smokers, it’s never too late to benefit from quitting. The risk of heart disease goes down very quickly after stopping smoking and over time, the risk of lung and other cancers can drop to near that of someone who never smoked [176]. Talk to your health care provider about ways to quit. Although it can be hard, there are many resources for smokers who want to quit. These include:

American Cancer Society – Guide to Quitting Smoking
www.cancer.org/Healthy/StayAwayfromTobacco/GuidetoQuittingSmoking/index  

American Lung Association – Freedom from Smoking
www.ffsonline.org  

National Cancer Institute’s Free Help to Quit Smoking
www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/tobacco/smoking 
1-877-44U-QUIT (1-877-448-7848) 

National Cancer Institute’s Smokefree.gov
www.women.smokefree.gov  

State Tobacco Quit Lines
1-800-QuitNow (1-800-784-8669)

U.S. Department of Defense – Quit Tobacco
www.ucanquit2.org  

Learn about smoking and breast cancer risk.

It's never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle

Making healthy lifestyle choices has benefits at any age. Maintaining a healthy weight, eating a well-balanced diet, being more active, stopping smoking (if you smoke) and becoming more aware of your health can be physically and mentally rewarding at any point in life.

*Please note, the information provided within Komen Perspectives articles is only current as of the date of posting. Therefore, some information may be out of date at this time.  

Updated 04/11/14

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