Growing up in Iran, Maryam Farvid always had a deep relationship with diet and nutrition. “Diet is a part of traditional medicine in Iran,” Dr. Farvid explains, “and it is common in my culture to learn about food and health.”
When she had colds in high school, food was part of the remedy. “From a young age, I was always interested in how food could help my health,” she says. It was an interest that stayed with her through years of study, a PhD, and to Havard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Today, as an AICR supported nutrition scientist, Dr. Farvid, works to understand how specific foods and beverages can impact the health and well being of breast cancer survivors. Her research in coffee, fiber and carbohydrates has led to important insights into the role diet plays in the lives of breast cancer patients.
Thoughtful and engaging, Dr. Farvid demonstrates a remarkable passion for research and community. Speaking with her recently, we learned how her work can help women lower their risk for breast cancer, and how her discoveries can help patients improve chances for survival.
Can you describe your career path?
My main background is in nutrition: I have a bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD in Nutrition Science; my minor was epidemiology. I was studying diabetes for years in Iran, looking at dietary intake and antioxidant supplements and diabetes complications. Then when I came to Harvard as a visiting scientist, I started to look at the role of anxiety in diabetes. In the Department of Nutrition, there was a project on breast cancer so I started to work on that and it was the beginning of a whole new area of research for me.
I was interested to see what the role of early lifestyle was in breast cancer risk and Harvard has unique data I could use. I was looking at the link between adolescent and early adulthood diet and breast cancer and thinking, “maybe I can go back to diabetes.” But after one project, I was so excited about it that I continued to research breast cancer. I wanted to look at diet after a breast cancer diagnosis and mortality. Before I applied for the grant from AICR I worked for two years to establish a statistical method to evaluate the role of diet after breast cancer diagnosis on survival among women with early-stage breast cancer.
Are there highlights of your published work?
When my paper about red meat and breast cancer was published in early adulthood, I got so much press it was exciting to see that both men and women were interested in the results. It gave me more energy to continue this research. And then two of my papers that were recently published and are related to the role of fruit and vegetable intake as well as quality and quantity of carbohydrate intake and breast cancer survival were both selected by NCI’s Epidemiology and Genomics Research Program (EGRP) to be included in their Research Highlights of 2020, in the hopes that data will lead to a better diet for breast cancer patients.
Your AICR-supported research is related to beverages and breast cancer survival, but you also studied how fruits, vegetables and other dietary choices affect survival. Can you briefly talk about your findings?
Before evaluating the role of beverage consumption—something we have limited evidence on—using rich data, I examined the associations of fruit and vegetable intake, fruit juice consumption and quality and quantity of carbohydrate intake on breast cancer prognosis. We have found that high fruit and vegetable consumption may improve survival among breast cancer patients, while high fruit juice consumption may link to poorer outcomes. Our research also suggests that the type and amount of carbohydrates may be important in breast cancer survival. Then, with AICR support, we found coffee was very protective, and as we expected, that sugary beverages after a diagnosis increased mortality.
Have you ever been part of an AICR Research Conference, webinar or other event and if so, can you talk about how it has been helpful?
I have attended the AICR Research Conference twice; this is one of my favorite conferences. I didn’t want to miss any talks! After the first time I went in 2016, I looked forward to attending it every year.
How has the AICR grant you received affected your research overall?
AICR has had such a significant impact on my work. If there was no AICR I would not have been able to continue my research on breast cancer survival. During the years of the grant funding I was able to provide information for breast cancer patients. I am so grateful for that.
The research in breast cancer and lifestyle has grown so much in recent years. What do you see as the most promising findings?
My research showed that diet during adolescence and early adulthood is important. These studies remind us of the role of diet in early life on health in later life. Now, my current work on diet and breast cancer survival helps us find effective dietary intake responsible for improving life expectancy among women with breast cancer.
I want to continue my research in both prevention and treatment of breast cancer and diet. At this time, there are many studies that look at diet and breast cancer, but we still do not know too much about the dietary risk factors. My ultimate goal is to improve the standard of cancer care for breast cancer survivors and to empower survivors to adopt safe, cost-effective lifestyle changes that may help to heal their disease upon diagnosis, and to live disease-free after breast cancer, without fear of recurrence.
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