Mar. 4, 2010 -- Women who eat a healthy diet in the years before their ovarian cancer diagnosis may live longer than those who don't, according to a new study.
''Women [in the study] who had a better overall diet quality had a survival advantage over those who did not," says study researcher Therese Dolecek, PhD, research associate professor of epidemiology and an investigator at the Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health.
The study is published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Ovarian cancer is associated with a poor outlook because it's often diagnosed at a late stage, after it has spread. An estimated 21,550 women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2009, according to the American Cancer Society, with 14,600 deaths expected from the disease that year.
Dolecek can't say based on the research whether a woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer who begins eating a healthier diet will live longer.
Dolecek and colleagues followed 341 women from Cook County, Ill., all diagnosed with ovarian cancer from 1994 to 1998. The women had participated in a previous study and supplied information about their diet.
The researchers looked for links between healthier diets and longer survival, focusing on the women's eating of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meats, dairy, fats and oils, and other foods.
Comparing Food Choices
Healthy food patterns were linked with longer survival times, although some foods had a stronger association than others. "To pinpoint exactly how much survival [was lengthened] is not possible," she tells WebMD. 'It varies from person to person." Many factors affect survival, such as the stage of the cancer at diagnosis and the woman's age.
It also varied depending on the foods. For instance, Dolecek found that yellow and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale) seem particularly beneficial. ''At five years, 75% of the women who ate less than one serving a week of yellow vegetables were alive, compared to about 82% of those who had three or more servings of yellow vegetables a week," she says.
Those who ate the most red meat, processed meat, and cured meat had a briefer survival time. When the researchers looked at red meat lovers vs. avoiders, "we found almost a threefold risk of dying for those women who ate four or more servings of red meat a week compared to those who ate less than one serving per week over the 11-year study period," Dolecek says.
Women who drank more milk also had a disadvantage, although Dolecek can't say why.
"Women who had seven or more servings of milk of any type per week were two times as likely to die during the study period as those who had none." But Dolecek stressed that the milk finding should be interpreted cautiously. "It may have something to do with the fact that they are genetically predisposed."
Eating fruits also helped, but as a whole, high intakes of fruits and vegetables evaluated together didn't make enough of a survival difference to be significant from a statistical point of view, the researchers found.
It's not clear, either, exactly how a healthy diet may lengthen survival in those with ovarian cancer, Dolecek says. "You might have a stronger immune system," she says, Or ''your overall health status may be better."
In future research, Dolecek hopes to find out if improving the diet after diagnosis may also boost survival. "Further research is needed to determine if the quality of the post-diagnosis diet impacts survival," she says.
Ovarian Cancer: Lifestyle Matters
The new findings echo some from previous research, says Cynthia A. Thomson, PhD, RD, an associate professor of nutritional sciences, medicine, and public health at the Arizona Cancer Center, University of Arizona, Tucson, who co-authored an editorial to accompany the new study.
''I think the message is 'lifestyle matters' -- and lifelong lifestyle habits," she tells WebMD.
The message from the study, Thomson says, is optimistic for some. "Yes, you may still have a difficult diagnosis to deal with, but if you go in being a healthy eater, in the long run you may have a better prognosis and survival."
''Ideally," she says, "we need to study this after diagnosis and find out if they change their eating -- can they change their survival [time]."