Hilda Mendieta hated vegetables and “wasn’t eating healthy at all” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.
After undergoing a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and surgery for breast implants at Memorial’s Breast Cancer Center, the Hollywood mother of three boys is on the road to recovery.
A big part of the recovery: Eating lots of fruits and veggies and avoiding red meat, sugar and processed foods.
“I’ve been through hell, but I am looking forward to starting my life again with a healthy me, a more fit me — with new boobs,” Mendieta, 43, said laughing.
At Memorial, Baptist Health Breast Center and University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, oncology dieticians work with patients as they transition into cancer survivors.
Lesley Klein, a clinical registered dietician at Sylvester, explains to her patients that if cancer is the weed, then chemotherapy, radiation and surgery are the weed killers. After it is killed, the goal is to keep the patient’s garden (their body) as healthy as possible so the weed can’t grow back.
“Research shows that a lot of cancer recurrence is caused by obesity,” said Cynthia Wigutow, a board-certified oncology dietician at Memorial. “We try to promote to our patients that it is important to maintain a healthy weight.”
Unlike most cancers, which cause weight loss, many breast cancer patients pack on the pounds, especially those who undergo chemotherapy. Stress, less physical activity and metabolism changes due to premature menopause are all contributing factors. In addition, anti-nausea drugs can boost appetite, and chemotherapy can lead to carbohydrate cravings.
“I usually explain to patients that the fat around the abdominal area poses increased risk to not only cancer but also other diseases like heart disease,” said Alice Pereira, a certified specialist in oncology nutrition at Baptist Health Breast Center.
But for cancer patients who have just been through physically grueling treatments that weaken the body and immune system, losing weight cannot be done drastically.
Kendall resident Melissa Merwin, 67, was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She had just spent the previous year losing 25 pounds and getting into shape after retiring as a certified nurse midwife.
She underwent four months of chemotherapy followed by a lumpectomy and radiation. Now she is trying to take off the 15 pounds she gained during treatment. Pereira recommended that Merwin enroll in a two-year study of breast cancer survivors with body mass indexes higher than 25. Merwin’s is 29. A BMI of 25 or higher denotes overweight or obesity.
Today, Merwin is on a 1,500-calorie-a-day meal plan that calls for light to moderate exercise of 25 to 60 minutes each day.
The nutritionists advocate a plant-based, anti-inflammatory diet that includes lots of vegetables and fruits, with protein from beans, nuts, legumes and fish high in omega 3 like wild salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel.
The American Institute for Cancer Research recently came out with the “New American Plate.” It aims for meals to be made up of 2/3 (or more) vegetables, fruits, whole grains or beans and 1/3 (or less) animal protein.
Animal protein increases inflammation. Red meat — which includes beef, pork, veal, lamb and goat — should be severely limited, the nutritionists said.
“Chicken is OK, without the skin,” Klein said. “Eggs are better, especially if they are enriched with omega 3.”
The dieticians all recommend eating foods of different colors to get a wide range of nutrients. Blue and purple foods, like eggplant and blueberries, are good for cognition. Red foods like kidney beans benefit the immune system. Orange foods like melons, papayas and carrots are good for eyes, skin and reproductive health. Green foods like broccoli, edamame and green tea are good for the liver, hormone balance and cognition.
All these foods are rich in antioxidants, which help defend against cancer.
Pereira runs a “supermarket navigation” class once a quarter at Baptist that teaches patients how to read labels and look for hidden sugars. “Any word that ends in ‘ose’ is going to be a sugar,” she said.
“Basically, we tell them to shop the walls and not the halls. We tell them to try to stay away from the aisles in between the supermarket where most of the processed foods are. Fresh is best. Frozen can be OK. And the least best is cans. Make sure any cans are low sodium.”
Merwin’s post-cancer diet routine includes “juicing,” in which she makes smoothies from fruits and vegetables. “I feel nutrition is the only thing I can control right now,” she said. “My body is full of toxins. My cells are broken apart by radiation and I need to get them out of my system.”
Merwin also is looking forward to her next chapter: “Believe me, when people go through cancer, it changes your perspective on what is important,” she said. “I have to take a nap in the afternoon; it’s a priority. You have to take care of yourself first.”