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Low-Fat Diet May Reduce Recurrence of Breast Cancer

For women who have had breast cancer, there's new evidence in a 5-year study that diet may have an impact on whether their cancer comes back.

In a study of more than 2,000 breast cancer survivors, those who were put on a low-fat diet were less likely to have a recurrence of their cancer than those who stayed on their regular diet.

Dr. Rowan Chlebowski of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles presented the results of the study at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Florida. "Survival was longer in the diet group, with 12.4% being disease free, compared to 9.8% in the control group," he said, "representing a 24% reduction in recurrence risk."

Statistically, the results of the study were not dramatic. Dr. Chlebowski himself admits the results were borderline, and he hopes to continue studying the same group of women to see if the low-fat diet -- the intervention, he called it -- will continue to be associated with reduced risk of a recurrence of cancer. "But having said that, the intervention could be recommended for other health benefits. So it's something that a breast cancer survivor potentially, after discussion with her [doctor], could consider."

Whatever benefit a low-fat diet may have for cancer survivors, the women on the low-fat diet lost an average of almost 2 kilograms, and doctors often recommend a low-fat diet to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Getting participants to reduce their consumption of fat was no simple matter. Women assigned to the low-fat diet group received intensive counseling from specially-trained dieticians.

"Many of our participants actually stated that one of the reasons they were doing this was because of their relationship with the dietician," said Dr. Chlebowski. "There's benefit from feedback and adjustments. One of the things the dieticians would do is, when people had trouble, they would be able to propose a solution, where other people couldn't get around the problem. They said, I need, I have to eat ice cream or something like that. [The dieticians] would propose a potential, where an individual by themself would just get stuck and then would just kind of give up. I think that's the other issue that came up: ongoing motivation but also problem solving that the patients couldn't come up with by themselves."

Commenting on the study, Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society recalled an interest expressed by cancer patients 3 decades ago, when he was beginning his medical career, in macrobiotic and other special diets that would get the patients involved in their cancer care.

"Even back then," he recalled, "people were interested in knowing what they could do to help themselves if they were diagnosed with cancer. Here we are, 30 years later, and now what is exciting about this particular study is [that] we do have a randomized, controlled trial that suggests that a lowfat diet -- and not a particularly strict low-fat diet, but a modestly low-fat diet -- can actually delay the recurrence of breast cancer in a particular group of women."

Dr. Lichtenfeld stressed that the low-fat diet seemed to benefit certain women more -- those who had what is called estrogen receptor, or ER-negative breast cancer. That type represents about 1/3 of breast cancers, but they tend to have a poorer prognosis for recovery.