Kim Reyes has come to like a fermented drink called kombucha, eats tons of vegetables and has learned how to cut carbs from her breakfast. She has also turned to acupuncture to ease her back pain, started water exercises to help reduce lymphedema and gets massages for relaxation.
It’s all part of her care at the integrative medicine program at the Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida, where the 56-year-old Miami Realtor is incorporating lifestyle changes into a system of traditional healing techniques.
“It’s a great way to help me feel better without taking a lot of other pills,” said Reyes, who was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2015. She’s now “100 percent convinced” that nutrition, exercise, acupuncture and stress reduction can help make a difference in fighting cancer.
“Integrative oncology is emerging,” said Dr. Yoon Hang “John” Kim, the institute’s medical director of integrative medicine.
“People who have not had cancer, who have not had a personal experience with family members or friends with cancer, don’t live their lives where every decision is made by cancer,” Kim said. “But for people who have had cancer, everything you decide to do in terms of eating, in terms of exercise and in terms of doing other things, like meditation or praying, can have a protective effect. The mind-body connection is very relevant.”
A definitive connection between diet and cancer is still being explored by scientists, but experts tend to agree that eating more good food and less of the bad leads to better health and desirable weight, crucial to preventing the onset and recurrence of disease.
Being overweight and obesity are very closely correlated to cancer because of the inflammatory process. A strong immune system helps to naturally fight off cancer.
Lillian Craggs-Dino, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston
“Being overweight and obesity are very closely correlated to cancer because of the inflammatory process,” said Lillian Craggs-Dino, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston. “A strong immune system helps to naturally fight off cancer.”
The World Cancer Research Fund estimates that about 20 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. are related to body fatness, physical inactivity, excess alcohol consumption and/or poor nutrition.
“What we eat and what we drink and what we don’t eat can be contributed to a number of avoidable cancers,” said Sandy Sotnick, a board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition with the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami. “There are now up to 13 different cancers associated with being either overweight or obese.”
They include colorectal cancer, gall bladder cancer and gastric cancer.
“Inflammation is the backbone of all diseases,” she noted.
For years, nutritional experts have been advocating portion control and recommending the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet, which is focused on vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts and healthier fats like olive oil.
“We want to consume mostly a plant-based diet, which focuses on colorful vegetables and fruits,” Sotnick said. “What you need to do is eat a rainbow because there isn’t one perfect vegetable or fruit. Variety is the key.”
In a model plate for a cancer preventive diet, vegetables, fruits, whole grains or beans should take up two-thirds of the plate, and animal protein only one-third or less, states the American Institute for Cancer Research.
And don’t forget exercise, at least 30 minutes a day, Kim said.
While helping to prevent disease, being in shape can also enable cancer patients to endure the rigors of treatment, said Francis Henderson, who was diagnosed with cancer of his left vocal chord in October, not long after he began an intense diet and exercise regimen.
“In 90 days, I lost 18 pounds of body fat and gained five pounds of muscle,” said Henderson, who became a personal trainer after retiring as Broward County Water Resources Manager three years ago. “That’s when I got the disease.”
“It was caught early. I was lucky,” said the 70-year-old Boca Raton resident, a patient at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center branch in Deerfield Beach. He credits a switch to a more vegetarian diet plus playing tennis 12 to 15 hours a week with helping him bounce back from cancer.
“I really feel blessed that I was in the condition I was in when I went through the treatment process,” he said. “I was building better resilience, not knowing I would be put to the test months later.
“We’re actually an ecosystem,” Henderson said. “It starts with your mind-set.”
These types of lifestyle changes take time when patients are desperate for options, but nutritionists and physicians generally avoid recommending dietary supplements.
“There’s no magic bullet,” Sotnick said.
The experts also offer these tips:
▪ Kim asks his patients to read the book “Love, Medicine and Miracles” by Dr. Bernie Siegel, which addresses the power of the mind and love in cancer recovery. “I shared it with my mother, who did not speak English,” and had breast cancer twice, he said.
▪ Try to cook more at home, Sotnick said. “When you cook at home you have control of what you eat.”
▪ Kim suggests checking out a juice made from turmeric sold at the Pinecrest Farmers’ Market for a healthy beverage.
▪ If you love chocolate, choose dark chocolate that’s at least 80 percent cocoa, said Craggs-Dino. “If it’s too bitter, you can use it as a spice or put it in soups or stews or a mole sauce.”
▪ Get advice and recipes for healthier eating by signing up for the USDA’s emails at choosemyplate.gov/
The best cancer-fighting foods
Beans: Kidney, pinto and black beans, and yellow split peas and red lentils are on the lineup of legumes rich in antioxidants. Beans are also high in fiber, contain folate, and seem to protect colon cells, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Berries: Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries all have powerful antioxidants. “They’re high fiber, high fluid,” said UM’s Sotnick. “They also contain numerous phytonutrients to help fight cancer.”
Broccoli: The cruciferous vegetable is rich in nutrients, vitamins C, E, and K, folate and minerals. It also contains isothiocyanates, believed to inhibit the growth of cancer. Cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and bok choy are all cruciferous vegetables, but “broccoli appears to be the best of the lot,” said Kim, of the Miami Cancer Institute.
Quinoa: The ancient grain is now widely known as a power food, rich in phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Whole grains, which also include amaranth, farro, barley and oats, are “very healthy,” said Sotnick. Most importantly, go for whole grains over white grains or pasta.
Salmon: The fatty fish provides the powerful anti-inflammatory omega-3. “Sockeye salmon from Alaska is one of the safer salmons you can eat because it’s wild,” Kim said. Aim for two servings of fatty fish, which also include herring, mackerel and sardines, two times a week, Sotnick said.
Sauerkraut: Skip the hot dog and just eat the sauerkraut, which has probiotic power. “Fermented foods are the latest health trend,” said Cleveland Clinic’s Craggs-Dino. They help your gut health with beneficial bacteria. Other fermented foods include yogurt, kimchi, salt-brined olives, gherkins and pickles.
Spinach: Kale has been crowned king of green leafy vegetables, but let’s not forget vitamin-packed spinach. Its mild taste makes it easy to use in recipes and it has the same anti-inflammatory properties as kale, mustard greens, collard greens, chicory and Swiss chard. The American Institute for Cancer Research points to research showing that the carotenoids in dark green leafy vegetables can inhibit the growth of certain types of breast cancer cells, skin cancer cells, lung cancer and stomach cancer.
Sweet potatoes: The deep coral vegetable is especially high in carotenoid antioxidants, which may inhibit cancer cell growth. It’s low in calories, rich in antioxidants, high in vitamins and minerals (including Vitamin A, C, manganese and potassium), and high in fiber. If you dust them with cinnamon, that’s another benefit. Other fruits and vegetables packed with phytochemicals include carrots, cooked tomatoes, winter squash, apricots, cantaloupe, oranges and watermelon. “Their colors advertise how healthy they are,” Craggs-Dino said.
Tea/coffee: “Coffee and tea have been shown to be protective against developing cancer,” Kim said. He suggests drinking black coffee and either green or black tea without milk, sugar or honey. “Unless you’re drinking a decent quality green tea, it can have a bitter taste,” he said. Kim suggests organic gen mai tea, which combines green tea with roasted brown rice tea. Green tea, including concentrated matcha tea, has become a superstar partly because it is rich in catechins, which may help protect you from potentially damaging chemicals. Drink two to four cups per day.
“Green tea is a natural antioxidant,” said Sotnick, who recommends drinking two to four cups per day.
Turmeric: The pungent spice isn’t a miracle cure but it does have anti-inflammatory qualities that have helped drive its popularity. Other immune system boosters include ginger and thyme as well as raw garlic, all an excellent alternative to adding salt, sugar or butter for flavor, Sotnick said.
Walnuts: The nut is touted for its high amounts of phytochemicals that have antioxidant properties plus other protective compounds. Almonds and Brazil nuts are also good choices. Seeds, including flax seeds and sunflower seeds, have beneficial oils, fiber and vitamins.
What to avoid
▪ “Processed meats have to go,” Craggs-Dino said. That means hot dogs, salami and pastrami. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified processed meat as a carcinogen, something that causes cancer.
▪ Limit red meat, which is pro-inflammatory.
▪ Skip sugar and avoid sugar-sweetened drinks as well as processed foods that are lower in nutrients and higher in refined sugars, flours and fats.