Modern science does not fully understand the link between diet and breast cancer. While there have been studies to research how the usual suspects like dairy, red meat, fatand caffeine can impact your risk of developing it, no doctor worth their degrees will write you a prescription to go vegan or do a juice cleanse to prevent or help you recover from the disease. What you might get told is to eat more vegetables, drink in moderation and exercise regularly. You know, the usual.
And yet, you’ve probably heard or read of someone who changed her whole lifestyle after the diagnosis. She might have quit a stressful job, gone organic or started running marathons. It’s likely her doctor prescribed exercise and weight loss, both of which are associated with the reduced risk of recurrence of breast cancer. But her decision to eat differently—go vegan, quit sugar, eat keto—likely has more personal roots.
Asha Karandikar was health conscious even before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. The 47-year-old was always on guard against putting on weight so she stayed active and ate carefully. After her surgery and the last round of chemo, however, she kicked things into the next gear. She quit sugar and gluten, and drastically cut down on dairy. She says, “I went on the GM diet twice but I still had some bloating so I consulted a dietician, who suggested I switch from wheat to jawar or bajra.” She’s guided as much by professional opinion as she is by her own personal tastes (vegetarian, bland, low-fat) and goals (weight loss).
For others, a health scare is an opportunity to pause and take stock. A few years ago, Anjali Sanghi discovered very painful lumps in her breasts; Sanghi has a family history of breast cancer. Eventually when she made the decision to go gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan and a 100 per cent organic, she says the lumps disappeared. To get stronger and reduce the possibility of long term chronic diseases, she and her son, then three, adopted the raw vegan lifestyle. Soon after, Sanghi started the Indian Raw Vegan Foundation, which offers diet consultations. She also develops recipes (Indianrawveganfoundation.com) for raw vegan dishes, including tikki, dahi vada and malai kofta. If you do it right, she says, this lifestyle “provides the right internal environment for in-depth healing”.
Proponents of the natural way of life believe that the human body knows how to heal itself; we just need to get out of the way. Anju Venkat, health counsellor and nutritionist from The Health Awareness Centre (THAC), Mumbai, puts it like this, “The cells of our body are self healing, self-sustaining and self-regenerating. All they need is the time (rest), space (mental poise) and energy (right foods) to do their job.” THAC counsels those in recovery from diseases like cancer, who can often feel like boxers at the end of a grueling match.
What makes chemotherapy so effective as a treatment is also what devastates the physical system in the short term. It works by attacking cells that multiply rapidly so it not only decimates cancer, but also affects cells in the blood, hair, mouth and digestive system. Extreme fatigue during or after radiation therapy is common too. At the end of your duel with cancer, it’s not unusual to feel depleted on all counts.
In this state, Venkat says, it’s best to avoid certain foods. “Foods that block and clog our internal system, are difficult to assimilate, leave an acidic residue or create toxicity...these hamper the repair and maintenance of our cells. This includes milk and dairy products, wheat, meat and meat products, refined and processed items including sugar and salt, oils and fats, and drugs and medications.” Instead, she suggests filling up on foods that are easy to digest, like fruits, dry fruits and raw vegetables.
Medical science tends to be more measured in its prescription. Dr Richa Anand, head of nutrition at Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital, Mumbai, says diet is crucial for recovery from cancer. She encourages a high-protein diet that’s sterile and well-balanced. The idea is to build strength, avoid infection and regain your joy in eating and moving. "We don’t restrict any foods; everything is okay in moderation."
It’s the kind of good advice that’s largely ignored till calamity strikes. Women who change their diets after a cancer diagnosis do so in an attempt to administer radical self care and thus correct a long-time oversight. They’re clearing space on their schedule for themselves. Green smoothies can’t fight cancer, but putting more thought into what you’re going to have for breakfast? That’s practically doctor’s orders.