October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and two breast cancer survivors share how changing to a plant-based diet has kept them in good health.
MEAT-BASED products have always been a part of Syamimah Muhamad Narodin’s diet, right up until she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 30. Since then, the freelance accountant has made a complete turnaround – her daily meals now consist of fruits or vegetables and occasionnally, a small serving of fish.
“I used to love red meat; I enjoyed having a good steak. I gave up on all that when I found out I had cancer. I started reading books on food for cancer patients, but a lot of them didn’t reflect the kind of Asian diet that we had. Using some of the examples, I came up with my own diet plan,” says Syamimah.
The now 37-year-old survivor started concocting her own special blend of fruit and vegetable juices, which consists of five types of ingredients – usually of a different colour each.
“Every morning I blend a mix of red apple, green apple, celery, orange and an Asian pear in my juice processor. Any pulp that’s left will be turned into soup for lunch.”
Syamimah, who went through 30 cycles of radiotherapy, could immediately feel a difference in her body with her diet change.
“I felt completely detoxed and seemed to have more energy. Even though I really had no appetite during my chemotherapy sessions, I forced myself to pack up on the nutrients, because I knew I needed the energy to go through the treatment.”
Even now, after being diagnosed breast cancer-free for two years, Syamimah still maintains a relatively meat-free diet.
“I had a very difficult first week when I started changing my diet. Watching people eat made me feel hungry. But I persevered, and now my body is used to it.”
Contact centre lead Ranbir Kaur Toor, 52, also made the switch to a plant-based diet when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38.
Her daily diet now consists of ulam (traditional salad), fish and carrot juice. “I’m very lucky that the cafeteria where I work has a lot of fresh ulam – kacang botol, pegaga, paku-pakis, ulam raja, tomatoes. I take that for lunch and when I go back home, my mom, who is vegetarian, prepares my meals for me. While it’s been challenging for my daughter (who is now 19) to go on a plant-based diet, I think she has realised the benefits that come with it. My mom is 80 years old and that kind of got us thinking that maybe it’s a sign we should follow in her footsteps.”
Ranbir, who has since had a mastectomy received the all-clear from her oncologist about becoming vegetarian.
“He actually said that I could eat anything, but just in moderation. He was OK with me becoming vegetarian, but he didn’t want me to think I couldn’t eat this and that, because that would only make me feel more ill, like a sick person.”
“Now, when I go out for dinner, I don’t restrict myself, but I make a choice. I started making choices – what I really want and what is actually healthier for me.”
While cancer patients are often encouraged to take on a plant-based diet, one doesn’t have to avoid meat completely, says dietitian Goo Chui Hoong.
“Success stories with plant-based diet are more conclusive for other cancers, like colon cancer, but not for breast cancer. Those who opt to go meat-free may have low levels of Vitamin B12 (essential in the production of red blood cells) and iron, which is never a good thing.
“That being said, some patients do feel strongly about avoiding meat and it can be very hard to convince them otherwise. And sometimes, their diet can have a placebo effect as well so you don’t want to go against what they believe in,” says Goo, who feels that going meat-free should be more of an “option”.
She points out that research has also not been conclusive on the significant difference in the nutrient content of organic products compared to non-organic ones.
“Organic farming definitely uses less pesticide and their farming techniques may be better, but nothing says that they are nutritionally more superior. As a more affordable alternative, I advise my patients to buy normal vegetables at the supermarket and just soak them in a vegetable wash to clear away any toxic residue.”
The Petaling Jaya-based dietitian, who is also adjunct senior lecturer with the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at the International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, says cancer patients who are undergoing treatment should ensure that they are, first and foremost, well-nourished.
“The treatment can be very vigorous and the body can become rundown. It’s highly important that they pack up on the nutrients during this difficult period. If appetite is a problem, what would help is to pinpoint the exact symptoms – is the patient losing appetite because of the metallic taste that they have in their mouths? If that is the problem, they can try biting on lemon slices, for instance. If they can just get through this phase, all will be for the better.”
According to Goo, one can also look out for a nutritionally-complete supplement drink especially designed for cancer patients, which are usually available at the hospital pharmacies. “Patients can also ask about taking a suitable appetite stimulant from their consulting doctors,” she adds.