Staying on track with diet, nutrition, and weight management is hard enough as it is, but to compound that with a cancer diagnosis, well, let’s just say all bets are off!
I have spoken with several people, and I have received tons of emails asking the question of whether or not it is possible to loose weight after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Moreover, I hear the distress among women, myself included, who do not understand why weight gain over the years is more prevalent in those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer compared to those who have not. An interesting study from Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center addresses some of the reasons.
Going through active treatment, it’s important to get some physical exercise when you can. There were definitely days I was so fatigued I could barely walk a block.
Other days, I was able to walk 10,000 steps! It was also important to nourish my body with nutrients.
I rewarded myself after completing 6 months of chemotherapy with a fancy juicer, specifically the Breville Juice Fountain I was committed to getting my health back and fueling my body with healthy fruits and veggies every morning. That, in addition to making smoothies with my Vitamix, I thought I was on track to lose the “chemo weight” and start feeling my best.
Well, that was a year ago and I haven’t lost a pound. That’s not to say it’s impossible to lose weight with a breast cancer diagnosis, but it may take a different approach.
I did some research. Let me share with you what I discovered and how I am approaching diet, nutrition, and weight management now as part of my strategy for survivorship post breast cancer!
Hormonal receptive breast cancer accounts for 65-75% of all breast cancer cases. If your cancer thrives in these hormonal environments it is common to be placed on hormone therapy drugs that lower estrogen levels or block estrogen receptors all together. It is common for women who are pre-menopausal to be placed on Tamoxifen while post-menopausal women may be on Aromatase Inhibitors (AI) such as Anastonrozole, Exemstine, or Letrozole. Though one’s menstrual cycle isn’t the only consideration taken into account. In my case, I am under 40, haven’t yet gone through menopause, and after several discussions with my oncological team, choosing the right long terms therapies for me included Letrozole plus a Lupron shot.
Since starting these hormonal therapies, I have noticed I have to be extra conscious about diet and nutrition. While these therapies are saving my life from cancer, they are also throwing my body into a forced, medically induced menopausal state, where weight gain, muscle loss, and bone loss are all legitimate side effects! (Because of these side effects, my care team and I are being proactive. Prior to starting these therapies, I have taken a base line bone density test and will continue to be tested to ensure the health of my bones. Additionally, I have started to take Zometa to strength bones and hopefully prevent the onset of osteoporosis).
Medically induced menopause abruptly alters the body by lowering hormonal levels within days or weeks, instead of gradually over several years. This drastic onset can be particularly challenging. Not only is your body changing due to breast cancer, it is also changing due to hormonal levels!
After struggling with body image for some time, (losing my hair, losing part of my body through surgery, and needing to rediscover my femininity, changes in body shape, size, and physical ability) I had reached a point where I wanted professional support from a nutritionist.
If you have ever googled weight loss, we all know the “simple” formula that you have to burn more calories than you take in; if one pound equates to 3500 calories, in theory, by eliminating 500 calories a day, in 7 days, you would expect to have lost 1 pound. You do this enough over time, you will lose weight. Well, that wasn’t happening for me and I didn’t understand why; I didn’t fully understand how this “new post-diagnosis me” was functioning.
While meeting with my nutritionist, uncensored and disclosing everything I eat in a day, I realized that my idea of “healthy” wasn’t adding up.
The culprit: Eating all of the good healthy fats like avocado, walnuts, olives, and olive oil are great, but when you combine them all into a big salad for lunch, your salad can quickly between 700+ calories!
The solution: Choose one healthy fat to add to your salad and vary it up during the week. Not only did this reduce the calories in my salad, I actually started looking forward to the different salad options I was having each day! Some days there were avocado, which was a treat, and other days I got to eat delicious Kalamata olives!
The culprit: Eating fish is a great way to get your omega 3 fatty acids. Not to mention it’s a great source of nutrients like vitamin D and B2, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, and minerals! I fell in love with discovering the health benefits of fish and how my hair and skin had a new healthy glow to it! However, no one ever told me to pay attention to the portion sizes! Yes, size does matter!
The solution: ¼ of your plate should be dedicated to a protein source. Agood measurement of this size is about the size of your fist. If it looks small, don’t worry, fill up 1/2 of your plate with delicious veggies like carrots, asparagus, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, beets, snow peas, peppers, or zucchini. The last ¼ of your plate is dedicated to starchy veggies and grains, think corn, potatoes, quinoa and rice. Now, tell me you are still hungry after eating all of this! I was surprised how full I felt, not bloated, and I even slept better! Who knew? (My nutritionist did and I am so glad she shared this visual with me!)
I literally have it on my refrigerator to remind me every day what healthy looks like!
The culprit: Red wine. As an Italian/American, how could I give up the vino? It’s common practice to have a glass or two at dinner most nights. Plus, depending on what you read, some advocate that there are health benefits of drinking red wine in moderation! Well, the more research I did, the more I was discovering that wine, and specifically the sugars in wine, could actually lead to breast cancer! I was in shock! The last thing I want is recurrence of this disease! Now, I share all of this with a grain of salt because studies have come up with conflicting evidence as to the link between alcohol and cancer. However, the bottom line – if it’s toxic and you are putting it in your body, there’s a chance it can cause harm.
The solution: You can definitely choose your own path here. Personally, I know going cold turkey wasn’t going to be sustainable for me so instead of giving up alcohol as an absolute, I’ve switched to a light beer that I have on special occasions.
The verdict. It’s taken about 4 weeks, but I’m starting to notice a shift in the way my clothes fit and the way I feel. I’m focusing on the quality and quantity of my foods, getting 30 minutes of exercise in daily, and not obsessing about my post cancer body. Instead, I’ve embraced it and thank it every day for allowing me to be alive and get back to the life-style I enjoy!
I’m not claiming to be perfect, I’m claiming to be human!
--> Interested in what my food diary looks like take a peak here.
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