Women with healthier diets before an ovarian cancer diagnosis are less likely to die in the years following the cancer than women with poorer diets, according to a new study from the Canyon Ranch Center for Prevention and Health Promotion at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
The exceptions were women with diabetes or a high waist circumference, which is often linked to diabetes.
A healthy diet before diagnosis may indicate a stronger immune system and, indirectly, the capacity to respond favorably to cancer therapy. It also may reflect one’s capacity to sustain healthy eating after diagnosis, which in turn could support better health in a broader sense.
Researchers looked back at 636 cases of ovarian cancer occurring between 1993 and 1998, 90 percent of which were invasive cancers.
The women had filled out dietary and physical activity questionnaires at least one year before their cancer diagnoses as part of the larger Women’s Health Initiative study. Researchers measured their heights, weights and waist circumferences.
The healthy eating index used in this study measured 10 dietary components, scoring diets with a higher amount of vegetables and fruit, more variety in vegetables and fruit, more whole grains, lower amounts of fat and alcohol and more fiber as healthier than other diets.
On average, the women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer around age 63.
As of September 17, 2012, 354 of the women had died, and 305 of those died specifically from ovarian cancer.
When the researchers divided the women into three groups based on their diet quality, those in the healthiest-eating group were 27 percent less likely to die of any cause after ovarian cancer diagnosis than those in the poorest diet group.
There was a similar but slightly weaker association between pre-diagnosis diet and death due specifically to ovarian cancer.
Interestingly, the researchers found that it was not the individual components of diet that affected mortality, but an overall healthy diet.
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains may lower inflammation, which has been linked to ovarian cancer mortality.
Such a diet has also been linked to reduced risk of other chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which may complicate ovarian cancer treatment and increase mortality.
Women with a history of diabetes and those with a waist circumference greater than 34 inches did not seem to get the same survival benefit from a healthy diet as other women. In their report, the study authors note that past research has already linked diabetes with higher-than-average mortality in ovarian cancer.
The amount of regular exercise women got before diagnosis did not seem to affect the link between diet quality and survival.
Although the researchers accounted for exercise and total calorie intake, they did not account for ovarian cancer treatment. Women who had healthier diets may also have had access to better treatment, the researchers noted.
In any case, healthy diets do seem to be important to reduce cancer risk and to improve survival after cancer. High scores on the Healthy Eating Index are very similar to guidelines and recommendations for cancer survivors provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society.
Source: JNCI, online October 16, 2014.
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