Being diagnosed with breast cancer can make a person feel powerless, but there are some things women can do to potentially improve how they feel throughout the process. Here are some strategies recommended by experts—and others that are still being explored—which may help improve the effectiveness and symptoms of treatment.
“Exercise is one of the best things women can do for themselves,” says Dr. Ann Partridge, director of the Program for Young Women with Breast Cancer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “It doesn’t mean marathons or hot yoga, but walking three to five times a week can make a huge difference in terms of energy, stamina and how you feel during treatment.” Partridge says that while exercising during treatment won’t be easy for every woman with breast cancer, it can be worthwhile if there are days during treatment cycles where women feel up to it.
The benefits extend not just to the body, but also to the brain. A new pilot study of 87 breast cancer survivors found that women who did a 12-week exercise program more than doubled how fast they were able to take in information, as measured by cognitive tests, compared to women who weren’t in the exercise group and who just received emails about health topics.
Moving more is good preventative medicine, too. Several studies have found that physical activity can lower a woman’s risk for breast cancer, and some studies found that the most active women have about a 25% lower chance of developing the disease than the least active women. A 2015 study found that the more fit women were, the lower their risk for developing the disease.
“The exercise guidelines were developed with [heart disease] outcomes in mind,” said study author Christine Friedenreich, scientific leader of cancer epidemiology and prevention research at Alberta Health Services, in 2015. “So at that level, they can have an effect on blood pressure, cholesterol levels and waist circumference. But for cancer prevention, we may need to exercise at higher volumes.”
A diet high in fruits and vegetables has been linked to a lower risk of breast cancer. Studies have shown that following a mostly plant-based diet can reduce risk of developing breast cancer (by about 15%, according to one). When researchers in a 2016 study asked a large group of women what they had eaten as teenagers, they found that those who reported eating about three servings of fruit a day as teens had a 25% lower risk of developing breast cancer than those who ate less.
Eating well throughout treatment is also helpful, says Partridge. “I don’t mean you have to start juicing or eating organic, but take care of your temple,” she says. “Don’t overdo it with carbs or comfort foods.”
Up to 80% of women with breast cancer in North America use complementary or integrative therapies, and one of the most studied is yoga. Researchers have found that practicing yoga has a host of health perks, including lowering a person’s risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and hypertension. There’s also evidence that yoga may help the side effects of cancer treatment. In one 2017 study, doing yoga twice a week improved the levels of fatigue and quality of life for men being going through radiation treatments for prostate cancer.
It may also help people recover after cancer treatment. A study from researchers at Ohio State University looked at 200 breast cancer survivors who had completed treatment in the last three years and were either assigned to 12 weeks of yoga classes or no yoga. The researchers found that the women who practiced yoga had lower fatigue and markers of inflammation than women who did not do yoga.
Sleep is a critical part of good health, and experts recommend that adults get between seven to nine hours each night. Accumulating research also suggests that the amount of sleep a woman gets is linked to better survival from breast cancer. In a 2016 study researchers found that women who slept less than five hours a night on average before they were diagnosed with breast cancer were nearly 1.5 times more likely to die from their breast cancer than women who reported sleeping seven to eight hours. The study only found an association between more sleep and greater survival, but the poor health outcomes related to insufficient sleep are well established.
Research is still in the very early stages. But in 2014, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found evidence in mice suggesting that cancer treatment might be more effective in the evening, thanks to certain bodily processes that happen at night. In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, they reported that a mouse’s daytime production of steroid hormones in the body hindered the effects of certain receptors that are targeted by cancer drugs. Since the study was in mice, scientists don’t know yet whether nighttime therapy works better in humans, but it’s not the first study to suggest that the body may be receptive to treatment at night.
“Beyond taking care of your body, it is also important to take good care of your mind,” says Partridge of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “When you are emotionally not doing well, you feel things more physically.” Partridge says that when people feel tired, stressed or upset, they may perceive their physical symptoms of cancer as worse.
Partridge recommends adopting practices like mindfulness meditation. A 2014 review of available research found that meditation is effective when it comes to treating symptoms of mood disorders that are common among women with a recent breast cancer diagnosis.