This article is part of a series of articles discussing the common questions about food that cancer survivors often have.
Being diagnosed with cancer is likely to leave you eager to do all you can to prevent the cancer from coming back. You may be frustrated that there’s only so much about cancer prevention you can control. But you do have control over one area of your life; your diet.
After a diagnosis of cancer, people tend to re-evaluate their nutrition and health practices. Many wonder what caused this cancer to occur and what lifestyle changes they should be making. Eating well can help you optimize your weight, improve your energy and may also help protect you from cancer recurrence in the future.
We know a diet that is high is vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, low in fat and high in fiber is cancer protective. But a lot of these factors have not been studied in detail in people who have already been diagnosed with cancer and we don’t know if having such a diet would prevent the cancer from coming back. Still, there is every reason to believe that having a healthy balanced diet that is cancer-protective to begin with would be protective as well for cancer survivors.
Many people believe they must make significant diet changes to ensure a good outcome following cancer treatment. Trying to research what to eat and what not to eat can be confusing. We have based our discussion and recommendations on guidance by the American Cancer Society, the European Society of Medical Oncology, Cancer Australia and a few other large cancer societies. Hopefully this series of articles will help clear some of the confusion you have surrounding food.
Can I drink alcohol? How much can I safely drink?
It is estimated that 5.6% of cancer cases in Australia each year can be traced back to long-term alcohol use. In fact, around 20% of Australians drink more than 2 standard drinks daily.
The link between alcohol and some cancers have been confirmed, including cancers of the mouth, throat, food tract, liver and breast. In people who have already received a diagnosis of cancer, alcohol intake could also increase their risk of a new cancer in these areas.
It is not the type of alcoholic drink that is important, but the total intake of alcohol (ethanol) that counts. Cancer Australia recommends that men drink no more than 2 standard drinks on any day of the week and women limit alcohol to one standard drink a day to reduce their cancer risk. If you do not usually drink alcohol, abstaining from alcohol is an excellent habit to continue!
Is soy good for me?
Studies so far have found no negative effects of soy food intake on cancer recurrence. However, the evidence for soy supplements is not clear. There is also lack of evidence that soy foods can lower your risk of any cancer. Therefore, Cancer Council Australia recommends that soy foods like soy milk, tofu or tempeh can be included as part of a healthy varied diet but have advised people to avoid soy supplements.
Does sugar feed cancer?
All the cells in the body use sugar for fuel, and cancer cells seem to take up blood sugar more rapidly than do healthy cells. A few small studies have shown that eating high sugar food does not directly increase the risk or progression of cancer. However, sugars and major sources of these sugars add high amounts of calories to the diet and can cause weight gain, which is linked to worse cancer outcomes. In addition, most foods that are high in added sugar do not contribute many nutrients to the diet and often replace more nutritious food. Therefore, limiting food with added sugar is recommended.
For cancer protection, research supports maintaining healthy blood sugar and insulin levels with weight control, regular exercise, a high-fiber diet and avoiding large loads of refined carbohydrates (think white bread, cake, biscuits etc).
On the flip side, not eating any sugar at all is not a good idea. It is hard to 'starve' cancer of sugar as our body has a fail-safe mechanism that never lets our blood sugar level drift below a certain number. So if we don't have any sugar, it will just make our bodies use its remaining resources to produce sugar for fuel. This will make us feel washed-out and tired. It will also take away your body's precious resources that could be better used to recover from cancer treatment instead. Plus, you need to remember that vegetables, fruits and other healthy food get converted to sugar so if you follow a strict 'no sugar' diet, you will be restricting yourself from important nutritious food.
That is it for the first part of this series. We will be talking about whether you should eat red meat, whether eating a low-fat diet and whether a high-fibre diet can reduce your risk of cancer coming back next.
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Medical information disclaimer
The medical information provided is correct to the best of our knowledge, but no warranty as to accuracy is given. You must not rely on the information on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor.
If you have any concerns about your health, you should seek immediate medical attention.