Ask the Expert: Q&A on Breast Cancer, Exercise and Diet

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jennifer Ligibel, MD, recently partnered with CancerConnect to answer questions about breast cancer, exercise and diet. Ligibel is an oncologist with the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber.

Jennifer Ligibel, MD
Jennifer Ligibel, MD

Q: I am currently on maintenance treatment for breast cancer and I need to lose weight. Do you have any tips for how I can start?

A: People are most successful when they start with an attainable goal. Studies have shown that smaller amount of weight loss, 5-10 percent of your starting body weight, can have many benefits, even if people can’t lose 50 pounds.

  • Keep track of what you eat for a week. Look for “hidden” calories like soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, or juices, which are high in calories and not filling. Try to limit processed foods and sweets, which are also very high in calories with less nutritional value.
  • Start slowly with exercise if you have not been active. Make a plan to start with walking at a moderate pace for 10-15 minutes three times per week and gradually increase to every day, and then for longer periods of time.
  • Join a group program (like Weight Watchers), or try working with a weight loss “buddy,” a person with whom you can explore low-calorie recipes and exercise.

Q: Are there any lifestyle factors – diet/nutrition – that might help with anxiety and depression after a breast cancer diagnosis?

A:  There are many studies that show that exercise has a positive impact on anxiety and depression. Studies suggest that fairly modest amounts of exercise can improve mood. We generally recommend women start slowly and check with their physicians before starting an exercise program, but research suggests that moderate physical activity, such as walking, is safe for most breast cancer survivors and can have many positive health effects.

Although information is more limited in cancer survivors, there is also evidence that weight loss can have a positive effect on depression in women.

Q: What diet and exercise choices can help prevent breast cancer?

A: There is a lot of evidence that women who live a healthy lifestyle have a lower risk of developing breast and other cancers. This doesn’t mean that people who exercise regularly never get breast cancer or that people who don’t will necessarily develop breast cancer. General nutrition and physical activity recommendations from the American Cancer Society for Cancer Prevention include:

  1. Stay active: perform at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, such as walking at a brisk pace.
  2. Eat a healthy diet low in fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber.
  3. Maintain your weight in a healthy range, and attempt weight loss if you are overweight or obese.
  4. Limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

Q: Does boosting your immune system help prevent breast cancer? Is there a particular diet that can boost the immune system?

A: There is a lot we do not know about the biology that links nutrition and exercise to breast cancer. Some scientists have hypothesized that the immune system may play a role in this connection, but there is little conclusive evidence. Similarly there is not much known about how specific foods or supplements affect the immune system.

Read more from the breast cancer, exercise and diet Q&A with Ligibel.

Please note that this Ask the Expert Q&A is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Speak to your doctor or care team about any questions you may have about your health.