ANDERSON -- Anderson University student Allison Boyle is a typical college student in nearly every way except one. She is more careful about food choices.
“My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in December of 2009. At the time I was 15 years old,” Allison said. “Her particular form of breast cancer was estrogen positive. That means that the cancer fed off of her estrogen hormones. She started limiting her diet to foods that would limit the amounts of estrogen her body produced. She cut out all sugar, processed foods, dairy as well as red meats. . . .”
Allison is a sophomore at AU studying public relations and marketing. Her parents, Heather and Damon Boyle, have been married for 22 years and live in Eldersburg, Md., with her three younger siblings.
“My mom had a very strict diet. I call it her ‘rabbit food,’” Allison said. “However, she was very careful not to make us eat exactly everything she ate. She did, however, make sure that the meals she prepared for us were healthier. For example, we no longer eat red meat. If we have meat, it will be either chicken or turkey. We have a lot of dishes that consist mostly of vegetables. Sometimes the food is ... interesting. It was a bit of an adjustment getting used to all of the vegetables. You miss junk food after a while.”
Allison’s mother felt forced to make radical dietary changes in an attempt to overcome her family history.
“My mom had died of a brain tumor when I was 17 and being the ‘half glass empty’ kind of girl, I had always said that either I would die of cancer or my sister would,” Heather said. “But when you are actually faced with your own mortality, it’s a different story.”
At 40, with four children ranging in age from 8 to 15, Heather Boyle and her family were eating “the typical SAD, (standard American diet), full of processed foods and limited intake of fruits and vegetables.
“The day I found the lump, I knew it was cancer,” Heather said. “My eating changed immediately. . . . Not only was I not feeding my body the right foods but I was making the same mistake with my kids that had been made with me and I didn’t want cancer to be the legacy I left my kids.”
Her determination meant that she did not let undergoing surgery in January 2010, then chemotherapy treatments from February through July, followed by six weeks of radiation, slow her down from doing research on improving her nutrition. Despite some conflicting information in other ways, she discovered advice everyone agreed on: increasing fruits and vegetables.
In her research, Heather consulted with Belinda Roettger, Ph.D., who received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Purdue University, completed a post-doctoral fellowship in medical research at the Mayo Clinic and is published in peer-reviewed professional journals such as Journal of Cell Biology, Molecular Pharmacology, Journal of Neurochemistry, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. These days, Roettger is dedicated to sharing what she has learned about the link between nutrition and health to promote healthy lifestyles and help prevent disease.
“Nutrition is critically important during treatment for cancer,” Roettger said. “Fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods contain nutrients with antioxidant, anti-estrogen and chemo-preventative properties that fight cancer cells. Because of this, experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine encourage breast cancer patients and survivors to consume a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
Roettger said that numerous studies have shown the advantages of eating healthier, not only for those who have been diagnosed with cancer, but for those who wish to lower their risks of getting cancer.
“In a study conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, women with higher levels of circulating carotenoids (from eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables) are at a reduced risk of developing breast cancer. These results were published in the December 2012 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Also, a study published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment shows that women with the high-risk gene for breast cancer are able to reduce their risk by consistently eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables . . . .Medical science continues to show every day that your mother was right when she said, ‘Eat your vegetables!’”
Heather spent hours at the grocery store studying the labels of the contents. She transitioned the changes in food choices for her children, partly by reducing the stock of poor selections in the pantry and substituting with healthier ones. She also shared the information she found with them so that they eventually made better decisions on their own.
“When it came to my family, I tried to be balanced in my approach with them,” Heather said. “I would always have a meal where there was something that they liked but I would also introduce new options for them to try. I would tell them why something was a better choice and why we should consider changing or eliminating an item from our menu.”
Heather acknowledged that staying the course takes discipline. She offered a number of tips for those who wish to make changes, including partnering with those who have similar goals. She hosted an eight-week women’s Bible study on nutrition.
“We would each bring a dish to share and try them out on each other,” Heather said. “Even though the study is over, we still meet and see how everyone is doing.”
As for Allison Boyle, she wants to do whatever she can to avoid having cancer, within reason.
“I don’t monitor my diet too closely, but I do my best to make healthy choices when it comes to my nutrition,” Allison Boyle said. “For me, it is a lifestyle now, but still takes continual conscious effort.”