What is it about the holiday season that sends us into frenzied, wild abandonment of the tried and true habits that keep us sane, fit, limber, focused, grounded, nourished and strong (mentally AND physically) the remaining 11 months of the year?

I honestly don’t know.

Well, that’s not entirely true. From my years in private practice I have a few ideas (with science to back me up), but I don’t know what it is that drives YOU into the space of wild abandonment.

As we welcome December, what do you say we make it one to remember by taking a different approach – a more centered, deliberate, mindful approach – in an effort to greet January with open arms rather than a laundry list of regrets.

If you’re anywhere on the breast cancer path; newly diagnosed, in treatment, in survivorship, or living with metastatic, daily decisions about the food you put into your body, the exercise you do (or don’t), the time you get yourself to bed (and up in the morning), the people you surround yourself with, the dialogue in your head, the multitude of self-care choices you make every, single minute of every, single day can take on a new urgency.

Especially during the holidays, and it doesn’t matter which one you observe – Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or a mish-mosh of them all – the volume of self-care decisions also escalates. Successfully navigating the special holiday foods, booze, late nights, restaurant meals, and power-shopping fortified with fast-food stops and gigantic, seasonal, coffee-as-dessert drinks is enough to make you throw your hands up and simply cave to “taking care of myself takes a backseat”

There’s a litany of research suggesting the “best” approach to breast cancer and food/fitness/sleep/self-care, yet those well-intentioned recommendations can make you feel like one false move is enough to invite a new or escalated bout of breast cancer – and aren’t the holidays just riddled with landmines of false moves?


Angst-Producing Issue #1 – “Am I eating the “right” foods?

Consider. . .You’re so afraid of eating the “wrong” things that you restrict the holiday foods you enjoy the most, only to end up bingeing when no one’s looking on candied sweet potatoes, rugelach, or sugar cookies.

The Science. . .We don’t yet have definitive guidelines on specific foods that absolutely reduce risk of breast cancer recurrence or mortality, but we do have good data to suggest that dietary PATTERNS and the synergy of nutrients are just as important as individual foods. The science supports a dietary pattern heavy on fruits, vegetables and fiber, and light on added sugars and fats. How to reconcile THAT recommendation with sugar plums and mac-n-cheese? (1)

December to Remember Approach. . .

  • Aim to reduce added sugar and fat when you bake or cook.
  • For most recipes, you can easily reduce the sugar by at least one-third (typically more) without compromising taste or texture. (2)
  • Cut back on the amount of oil used in sauteing (or substitute wine, water or broth instead) and in salad dressings. Healthy fats are important for healthy diets, but remember, “Yes, Virginia, there is a calorie connection.”
  • Combine butternut squash with a reduced amount of cheese in that mac-n-cheese dish to reduce fat AND increase fiber/veggies.

Be Kind to Yourself. . .Don’t deny yourself any special holiday foods, and kick to the curb the guilt you feel for enjoying those special foods. Guilt is a useless emotion, so give away its place at the holiday table.


Angst-Producing Issue #2 – “Am I exercising enough and doing the “right” type of exercise?

Consider. . .You’re either heading into the holiday season de-conditioned and feeling overwhelmed (and again, guilty) about it, or already fit and looking to ratchet up your activity to counteract all of that holiday eating. You either wallow in guilt and eat to ignore how you feel about being out of shape, or kill yourself to fit in your workout even when sleep may be a better option (see #3 below).

The Science. . .We know that exercise can reduce the risk of diagnosis and recurrence, improve energy and reduce pain for advanced breast cancer, and helps everyone in managing stress, anxiety and depression. Current recommendations are for 150 minutes per week of deliberate physical activity, using a combination of cardiovascular, strength training, and flexibility and balance exercises (3, 4).

December to Remember Approach. . .

  • Schedule and prioritize your exercise; use a calendar, set a reminder, make a date with a friend/family member to “meet and move”. Scheduled gets DONE!
  • A little bit is better than none. Hard to believe, but your body responds to even the slightest increase in physical activity, so yes, doing 15 minutes at times you can’t find 30 is still beneficial.
  • Do exercise that you enjoy. This sounds old and trite, but it’s so true! If you try to do a type of exercise that you hate, you will not do it. Ever. Stop trying to trick yourself. . .it won’t work.
  • Get the exercise in consistently, but don’t forget to also pay attention to food portions and quality. You simply can’t out-run/lift/swim/dance a crappy diet (5).

Be Kind to Yourself. . .Missing a workout doesn’t mean your previous hard-won efforts evaporate. Just get right back to consistency as soon as you can. A break in a workout schedule doesn’t mean a break-up with your fitness routine. And if you’re just starting out? Start slowly, listen to your body, and keep going!


Angst-Producing Issue #3 – “Am I sleeping enough or too much?

Consider. . .You cut back on sleep in order to bake one more batch of cookies, wrap a couple of gifts, send out a few more invitations, or fill your online cart in the wee hours of the night. It just feels so productive, doesn’t it? Not so fast, you creator of “must-be-perfect-holiday” you.

The Science. . .There is interesting research to suggest that getting less than the recommended amount of sleep (7-8 hours/night for adults) may be connected to some cancers, breast cancer included. Connection doesn’t mean causation, and the jury is still out on the definitive science here. But it is important to realize there’s something there, so adding good sleep hygiene to your arsenal of breast cancer management tools isn’t a bad idea. Not to mention, inadequate sleep can throw off appetite, hunger and satiety, which can lead to overeating and choosing foods that are less than nourishing (6, 7).

December to Remember Approach. . .

  • Establish a bedtime routine. It works for kids (if you have/had them, you made sure they followed it!), and you’re just a grown-up kid – it’ll work for you, too.
  • Take a hot bath/shower, climb into your cozy bed and read a (non-stimulating, non-backlit) book, sip herbal tea.
  • Buy yourself special holiday pajamas; they’re not only fun, they’ll signal BEDTIME in your mind when you wriggle into them at the end of a long day.
  • Set a reminder, timer or a schedule to GO TO BED. Seriously. If you disregard your body’s signals to sleep, sometimes a little extra (auditory)  nudge can help.

Be Kind to Yourself. . .Sleep is cathartic. It heals, it energizes, it restores. Why do you think sleep deprivation is considered a torture tactic?? Because, it is. Do yourself a favor and get your zzzzz’s.


(1) Foods That Fight Cancer

(2) Is It Possible to Reduce Sugar in a Baking Recipe?

(3) Physical Activity and Cancer

(4) Exercise Can Counteract Treatment Side-effects, Improve Cardiovascular Fitness in Women with Advanced Breast Cancer

(5) Diet Tops Exercise for Cutting Weight, Cancer Risk

(6) Lack of Sleep Increases Your Risk of Some Cancers

(7) Good Sleep May Improve Breast Cancer Survival



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