Boosting Your Immune System After Breast Cancer

By: Guest Blogger, David Novak

Blogs
October 28, 2013

Boosting your immunity system sounds great, but the ability to do so after breast cancer has proved elusive because your immune system is a system, not just a single organ. As a consequence, several factors to improve it come into play, namely harmony and balance. And while a lot of the immune system and the way it functions remains a mystery, there are a number of researchers who are exploring the effects of stress, herbal supplements, age, exercise, diet and other factors that may affect immune response. In the meantime, general healthy-living strategies are a great way to start giving your immune system that boost it needs, particularly after surviving breast cancer and particularly to help avoid breast cancer recurrence.

It’s important to take a global look at survivorship with breast cancer, and it is starting to become clear that better living habits, especially a good diet, increases the possibility that a woman won't get breast cancer or have a recurrence. The good news is that after two decades of breast cancer being on the rise, numbers have been declining in recent years. Still women in the United States have a one-in-eight chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime, so it's not surprising experts are searching for more ways to keep them alive.

Not all oncologists embrace the link between nutrition and longevity, but doctors who specialize in nutrition say there are certain foods women can include in an overall healthy diet to increase their chance of survival. Other lifestyle changes can include exercise, vitamin supplements and stress-reducing activities.

Foods to Eat if You’ve Had Breast Cancer

Medical science is starting to understand the importance of nutritious food as it relates to good health, a strong immune system, and a disease-fighting body. Here are a few you should try:

Beans and whole grains- Women who consume a high-fiber diet probably boost their immune response, and a high-fiber diet is associated with lower overall mortality in breast cancer patients. Fiber is beneficial because it can help women control their appetite and may decrease the number of calories they consume. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, particularly after menopause, is widely viewed as one factor that influences breast cancer survival. When you look at cancers, most are caused by weight gain, and the more overweight you are, the more estrogen circulates in your body. When there's more estrogen, the risk of breast disease increases.

Fatty Fish/ Omega 3 - Eating foods like fish, high in omega-3 fatty acids, have also been linked to an improved breast cancer prognosis. The best fish sources include sardines, halibut, cod, haddock, mackerel, tuna and salmon. Consumption of EPA and DHA fatty acids from fish inhibit the proliferation of breast cancer cells and reduces the progression of breast tumors. In fact, in a study, women who were diagnosed and treated for early stage breast cancer and given higher levels of EPA and DHA had an approximate 25% reduced risk of recurrence. Eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids is also healthful because it supports proper immune function and lowers a woman's risk of heart disease, diabetes and general illness like colds and influenza.

Squash, Kale and Sweet Potatoes - Eating foods rich in carotenoids has been linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer recurrence. Carotenoids are the natural pigments found in yellow and orange foods, like squash, sweet potatoes and carrots, as well as dark leafy greens, found in collards, spinach and kale. Research indicates that increased consumption of carotenoids was associated with greater likelihood of breast cancer-free survival. Additionally, cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli make it hard for cancer cells to thrive and survive, and always with cancer treatment, the goal is to keep cancer cells dormant

Staying Active

Regular exercise is one of the pillars of healthy living, and great for breast cancer survivors. It improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, and protects against a variety of diseases. But does it help maintain a healthy immune system? Just like a healthy diet, exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system. It may contribute even more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently.

Lowering Stress

Studying the relationship between stress and the immune system presents difficult challenges. For one thing, stress is difficult to define. What may appear to be a stressful situation for one person is not for another. Many researchers report that stressful situations can reduce various aspects of the cellular immune response, and that psychological stress affects the immune system by disrupting communication between the nervous system, the endocrine (hormonal) system, and the immune system. These three systems communicate with one another using natural chemical messages, and must work in close coordination to be effective.

It’s speculated that long-term stress releases a long-term trickle of stress hormones — mainly glucocorticoids. These hormones affect the thymus, where lymphocytes are produced, and inhibit the production of cytokines and interleukins, which stimulate and coordinate white blood cell activity, the engine behind the immune system. Lowering stress, in theory, could help reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence, and rather, promote the production of hormones and white blood cells, the body’s defense against disease, including breast cancer.

Survival for Life

Nutrition, exercise, supplements, stress reduction, lifestyle changes and support groups are all great strategies to strengthen the immune system and recover from breast cancer. Practicing these lifestyle habits has been shown to improve immune cell function for those people who have had breast cancer, melanoma and skin cancer.

The fact that there is not one proven method to improve your immune system doesn’t even come close to suggest that further research might not prove that good healthy living could be the secret to strong immune response and the prevention of breast cancer. New evidence concerning the immune system and the way it works is constantly being revealed, and healthy living seems to be the common denominator in all of the study results. Cancer survival is not just about eating one kind of fruit or vegetable, or “just” working out. It's about making several healthy lifestyle choices, which contribute to the larger picture.

David Novak is a international syndicated newspaper columnist, appearing in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV around the world. His byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Readers Digest and GQ, among others, and he has appeared on The CBS Morning Show, Paul Harvey and The Today Show. David is a specialist in health, wellness, diet and exercise, and he is a regular contributing editor for Healthline. For more information, visit http://www.healthline.com/.

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