Women who pay attention to health news know that experts have been saying for years that some lifestyle choices can reduce our risk of breast cancer, including what we eat:
Eat like the Greeks. A plant-based diet with whole grains, nuts, fish, and small amounts of lean meat — often referred to as the Mediterranean diet — is touted as a way to ward off heart attack and stroke. A study this fall found that a Mediterranean diet heavy on extra virgin olive oil can be effective in preventing breast cancer.
“We know that up to one third of all cancers can be prevented with healthier diets and exercise,” said Sarah Syndergaard, an oncology dietitian at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute in Boise.
Syndergaard said she has fielded many questions about the latest study that heralds the benefits of extra virgin olive oil as part of a Mediterranean diet. The study followed 7,500 women for five years and found that those on the high olive oil diet were more than 60 percent less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than those who reduced overall fat in their diets.
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Syndergaard noted that the focus of the study was actually on heart disease in Caucasian women between 60 and 80 years old.
“It might not be transferable to different ethnicities, or premenopausal women,” she said.
Olive oil’s beneficial properties include antioxidants known as polyphenols, which protect cells from damage.
Syndergaard said the women in the study ate 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil a day. That translates into 300 or more added calories per day — a significant amount for women who are on a 1,500 to 2,000 calorie diet.
“Moving toward a healthy weight is cancer preventative. This is high in fat and not going to help anyone with weight loss,” Syndergaard said.
She does not recommend that women consume that much extra virgin olive oil, based on the results of this one study. But she said it’s a good idea to include olive oil in smaller quantities as a regular part of a healthy diet.
“I’m not going to change my diet,” said Syndergaard, a two-year breast cancer survivor who upped her physical activity after her diagnosis. “I eat several cups of root veggies, plus whole grains, lean meat, and I cook with olive oil.”
‘YOU FEEL BETTER’
Cathie Jonakin, a 57-year-old school nurse at North Junior High in Boise, focused on improving her diet after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2011. She became a believer in a primarily organic, plant-based diet after reading the book “Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life,” by David Servan-Schreiber.
“I eat all fruits and veggies when I can. I eat some meat — I haven’t given up anything entirely but I eat almost no red meat,” she said. “The anti-cancer plate is 80 percent fruits, veggies and whole grains.”
She cooks with olive oil at least five days a week.
Jonakin was just back from her honeymoon in Paris in the spring of 2011 when she went in for her annual mammogram. A nurse found a lump in Jonakin’s armpit during an exam before the mammogram.
“I always say I had armpit cancer, but your breast tissue goes all the way up into your armpit,” she said. “Self-checks are really important.”
The mammogram didn’t show the lump, so Jonakin returned the following week for a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound.
Jonakin had a lumpectomy, three months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. She said she has cancer in her family but didn’t know the full extent until after her diagnosis. Her aunt, cousin and great-aunts all had breast cancer. Her cousin had ovarian cancer, and her father died of pancreatic cancer.
She was tested for harmful mutations in the genes associated with breast and ovarian cancers — BRCA1 and BRCA2 — but none were found.
Jonakin got involved in the The Cancer Connection Idaho, which offers cooking classes, meditation, guest speakers and other resources for those who have cancer — and those trying to prevent it. That’s where she heard about the book by Servan-Schreiber.
Jonakin’s husband, physician Bill Jonakin, also changed his diet.
“He was not a big fruit and veggies guy. He was more meat and potatoes,” she said. “In the beginning, it felt forced. It’s just become a way of eating for him. I think you feel better when you make those changes.”