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Sharp Health News

Can diet and exercise help prevent breast cancer?

Nov. 14, 2016

Can diet and exercise help prevent breast cancer?

Daily physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight can help with bone health and heart health, but could these lifestyle changes also help prevent breast cancer recurrence?

That’s the question at the heart of a new clinical trial sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and health systems across the nation, including Sharp HealthCare. The Breast Cancer Weight Loss (BWEL) study builds on findings from an earlier clinical trial showing a 24 percent decrease in breast cancer recurrence among patients who lost an average of 6 pounds after eating a low-fat diet.

Researchers will test the hypothesis that daily physical activity and caloric restriction resulting in weight loss helps protect women against a recurrence of breast cancer. The study will track exercise and weight loss in women with stage 2 or 3 breast cancer, and with a body mass index (BMI) of 27 or higher. More than 3,000 women across the U.S. and Canada will participate in the study, including women in San Diego.

What does BMI have to do with cancer?

“We know that women with a higher BMI often have a higher percentage of body fat. Fat cells produce estrogen, and estrogen produced by the body can fuel growth of breast cancer cells,” says Dr. Christina Casteel, a board-certified surgeon and medical director of the Breast Health Center at Sharp Memorial Hospital.

Study participants will be randomly assigned to one of two groups: a weight loss group, in which patients will receive weight loss coaching over the telephone and track their daily food intake and activity; and a health education group, in which patients will receive regular mailings on breast cancer topics and invitations to online seminars.

“I tell all of my patients to include daily physical activity and a healthy diet with lean protein and fruits and vegetables as part of their treatment plan,” says Dr. Casteel. “I’m hopeful that this study can confirm the suspected link between weight loss and breast cancer prevention.”

A 2015 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a link between a Mediterranean diet and a decreased risk of breast cancer. A diet of lean protein, legumes, and fresh fruits and vegetables can also help patients in cancer treatment.

Dr. Casteel hopes that the results of the five-year study can help women navigate their breast cancer journey with a stronger sense of control over their long-term health.

“Women often feel helpless when they receive a breast cancer diagnosis,” she says. “This information can empower them.”

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Casteel about the BWEL study for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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