Diet & Exercise Considerations for Advanced Breast Cancer

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: December 2018.

Nutrition and exercise are always important for general health, and while an individual’s diet or physical activity may change during treatment for advanced breast cancer, maintaining balanced nutrition and staying active can have multiple benefits, including keeping the body strong and resilient.

The importance of nutrition during breast cancer treatment

Some treatments for advanced breast cancer can impact the appetite or change how foods taste. Malnutrition can occur when the body doesn’t get the nutrients it needs, and malnutrition is a common problem among people receiving treatment for cancer. In addition, many people experience unintentional weight loss during treatment and often their body actually needs additional calories to support healing.1

Each individual is different in their specific dietary needs, and it can be helpful to consult with a nutritionist or registered dietician who is skilled in working with people who have cancer. Eating a nutritious diet is important to maintain weight, keep strength and energy up, better tolerate side effects from treatment, lower the risk of infection, and help the body heal and recover more quickly.2

Nutrition tips during treatment

To manage nutrition during treatment and protect against malnutrition, women undergoing treatment should try to eat regularly (meals and snacks) and include foods from each of the food groups. Healthy eating tips for women undergoing treatment for advanced breast cancer include1,2:

  • Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables (try to eat several different colors)
  • Trying new foods, even things you didn’t like before as they may taste good during treatment
  • Eating lean meat and plant-based protein sources, like beans, lentils, and soy
  • Limiting high-fat foods, especially those from animal sources
  • Cooking low-fat by baking or broiling, rather than frying
  • Choosing fat-free or low-fat dairy products
  • Drinking lots of water to stay hydrated and avoiding sugary drinks like soda (check with your doctor if you have a fluid restriction)

The importance of exercise during breast cancer treatment

While in the past, people going through treatment for cancer were told to rest as much as possible, more recent research has shown that exercise during treatment can help improve the body’s functions and improve quality of life. Exercise while undergoing treatment with chemotherapy has been shown to potentially lessen side effects from treatment, including pain, nausea, and fatigue.3 However, each individual should check with their doctor to understand any exercise restrictions that might be appropriate for their case.

Exercises after surgery or radiation therapy

Exercise or physical therapy can also be important to regain arm mobility and strength after surgery or radiation to the breast or underarm area. Radiation therapy and any type of surgery to the breast and/or underarm lymph nodes can affect the movement of the arm, shoulder, and chest, and physical therapy exercises can help restore function and improve flexibility. Women should talk to their doctor before beginning any new exercise routine and ask if a referral to a physical or occupational therapist is recommended. Some exercises can begin a few days after surgery, while other movements should be avoided until after any drains or stitches have been removed.4

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