October is breast cancer awareness month. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women, with 1000 new diagnoses every year in Northern Ireland and one in ten women estimated to be affected by the disease.

Try googling breast cancer risk and diet, and you are sure to come across plenty of crazy ideas and extreme diet fixes that promise to cure, treat or fix cancer. Some of this is interesting, but a lot of this is nonsense. 

I work with a lot of women affected by breast cancer to help them find their way through the mass of nonsense nutrition and work out a way of eating that works for them, without the guilt and shame of following the latest diet fad or cancer claim. 

There is no magic bullet, but by making some simple changes, we can help to nourish our bodies, support our immune systems and may help to reduce our risk of developing the disease.  

What are the risk factors? 

Although the exact cause of breast cancer is unknown, evidence shows that there are some factors that are thought to increase our risk of developing the disease – from our genetics and age (which we can’t do much about) to our diet and lifestyle. (which we can change). 

Some lifestyle factors that are thought to increase our risk include: 

  • Being overweight
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Alcohol 

Diet and breast cancer 

In general, cancer experts recommend following a healthy, balanced diet to help reduce our risk of developing breast cancer. Rather than finding the one ‘magic bullet’ that works, a combination of factors can work together to help reduce our risk. 

  • Maintain a healthy weight 
  • Don’t smoke
  • Take regular exercise
  • Manage stress levels 

Eat like you are on holiday!

I don’t mean lots of ice cream and red wine! Instead, eating a Mediterranean style diet, packed with colourful vegetables and fruits, some oily fish, pulses, nuts and seeds means your diet will be packed full of essential nutrients, healthy fats and antioxidants to help nourish your body. 

Big up the brassicas

Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, purple sprouting and kale belong to the brassica family of vegetables – also known as cruciferous veg. These vegetables are rich in nutrients like vitamin C and antioxidants, as well as interesting components like indole-3-carbinol and glucosinolates that are reported to have potential hormone balancing effects and anti-cancer properties. 

Eat more fibre

We are recommended to get 30g of fibre in our diet every day – fibre rich foods include beans, lentils, fruit and vegetables, as well as wholegrains like brown rice and porridge oats. These types of foods are also rich in vitamins and minerals, but it is thought that fibre has a key role to play in female hormone balance too. Make some simple swaps from white to wholegrains, add pulses to soups and stews, and reach your 5 a day goal every day to get your daily allowance. 

Cut the crap!

I am all in favour of people making positive, healthy changes to their diets, but there are some foods that are not doing us any favours. Rather than cutting these out of our diet completely, it would be a better idea to eat them less frequently – think of them as occasional foods, rather than everyday foods, and replace them with more healthy alternatives. For example: 

  • Replace crisps with nuts and olives
  • Replace chocolate with 70% cocoa content chocolate (or higher if you can)
  • Replace fizzy drinks with sparkling water
  • Replace white and refined foods with wholegrain alternatives

How to be Breast Aware

Local charities Cancer Focus and Action Cancer have a lot of information and can offer support and advice if you are affected by breast cancer, including Action Cancer’s screening service for women aged 40-49 and 70 plus. 

Here is what Cancer Focus say about checking your breasts:

– Get to know what is normal for you

– Check your breasts regularly

– Know what changes to look for

– If in doubt, get it checked out

– Go for breast screening when you’re 50 or over

Visit Cancer Focus NI and Action Cancer to find out more.

This blog post first appeared as an article in The Irish News on Saturday 5 October 2019.