Everviolet Chats: Cathy Leman, Peaceful Plate

Between having a thriving career in nutrition and fitness, and serving as a beacon of support for the hormone-positive breast cancer community, registered dietitian Cathy Leman truly embodies resilience and purpose. 

In 2014, when faced with her own breast cancer diagnosis, she was able to draw from her health-focused background and navigate the unexpected. As she underwent treatment, a powerful resolve emerged – to leverage this experience not only for personal healing but also to assist others. With her years of experience as a lifestyle dietitian and nutrition therapist, Cathy discovered an alignment between her professional expertise and the needs of post-treatment hormone-positive breast cancer survivors. This realization birthed the Peaceful Plate program for hormone-positive breast cancer survivors, designed to end confusion and panic surrounding post-treatment diets.

Through her blog, insightful content, and empathetic guidance, Cathy merges personal experiences with evidence-based nutrition, providing a transformative path for emotional and physical healing. Her journey, rooted in the mantra "Beauty of Change" (also Everviolet's tagline!), embodies the strength born out of transformation and offers a guiding light for breast cancer survivors navigating their own paths.In an exclusive Everviolet Chats interview she shares her journey, offering invaluable insights and inspiration for women touched by breast cancer, and empowering women through education and support.

Your journey from a thriving personal training studio to focusing on the hormone-positive breast cancer community is remarkable. Can you tell us about your personal experience with breast cancer and what prompted the shift?

When I was diagnosed in 2014 I was in disbelief, just like so many other women. I was super healthy and fit, with no family history of breast cancer. I was running my private nutrition practice and personal training studio, as well as leading corporate wellness programs for a variety of organizations. I had a successful and fulfilling career helping people tap nutrition and fitness as the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. As I was going through treatment, trying to make sense of it all, I determined that somehow I had to use that experience of breast cancer; to “do” something with it. I realized using it to help others would also help me heal and move forward. I wasn’t an oncology dietitian then, and I’m not now (that’s a specialty area of dietetics). However, I’ve spent my entire career working as a lifestyle dietitian and nutrition therapist specializing in weight management, nutrition for prevention and management of disease, and in the management and treatment of eating disorders, disordered eating, and unhealthy relationships with food. Surprisingly, I learned my professional skills and experience translated beautifully to the work I do now with post-treatment hormone-positive breast cancer survivors.

The Peaceful Plate program aims to alleviate diet confusion and overwhelm for post-treatment survivors. What inspired you to create this program and what unique approach does it offer compared to traditional dietary guidance?

Yes, diet confusion and overwhelm after treatment is crippling! I was inspired to create the program because once I started asking women in the breast cancer community what it was about diet and nutrition that they struggled with, the majority said the same thing; they were confused, anxious, and unable to get the level of information and individualized guidance they wanted. I also noticed erroneous breast cancer nutrition information was rampant on line, resulting in women unnecessarily restricting and cutting foods out of their diet, following unhealthy nutrition practices, and feeling shame, guilt and anxiety when they fell short of unrealistic expectations. 

In your experience, what are some common misconceptions or myths about nutrition post-breast cancer treatment that your program specifically addresses?

The most common I hear are these: One specific diet to follow to prevent recurrence. Certain foods will cause recurrence. Cutting out sugar, soy, caffeine, red meat and dairy will prevent recurrence. Foods have estrogen that will make breast cancer grow or recur. 

Could you share an example or two of how nutrition plays a crucial role in supporting breast health and overall well-being, based on your professional insights?

The role of a healthy diet in supporting potential cancer prevention is well recognized. Recent data indicate that following the same advice can also improve cancer survivors’ quality of life. Because breast cancer (initial or recurrence) takes years to develop; a healthy diet should be maintained long-term for the maximum health benefit. 

Recent research indicates that a healthy lifestyle and diet is associated with better health-related quality of life in cancer survivors. Also, we know that survivors are at increased risk of developing another breast cancer and cardiovascular disease, which underscores the importance of adopting a healthy diet. I also encourage my clients to recognize that a healthy diet supports their cognition, immune system, bone health, energy levels and insulin/blood sugar regulation.

Your blog, dam. mad. About BREAST CANCER, is a powerful platform. How do you navigate sharing personal experiences while providing informative content for your audience?

I always like to remind my readers/clients/followers that I’m them! As a fellow breast cancer survivor I share the same goal; to take the very best care of myself to potentially reduce risk of recurrence. So I write from that perspective. That said, I also have a lot of writing experience translating nutrition science into lay persons language, so I draw on that experience to weave current breast cancer nutrition science into practical information that woman feel empowered to implement, because it’s realistic and “doable”. 

How has your background in health psychology woven a thread of understanding and empathy into your nutrition therapy, especially in guiding breast cancer survivors toward finding emotional healing and peace through their relationship with food after treatment?

My understanding and empathy in my nutrition therapy work comes from 25 years of experience helping people find their way back to a healthy relationship with food; finding healing and peace is part of that. It’s the same work I do now, yet with the added element of a breast cancer experience; which in my opinion is like pouring gasoline on a smoldering ember, because now they’re adding trauma on top of trauma. I do find, however, that going through breast cancer myself allows me to support my clients in a way other equally proficient nutrition practitioners may be unable to do. 

Given your passion for plant-based cooking, could you highlight a couple of key dietary components or recipes that you find particularly beneficial for breast health?

There aren’t single recipes that are particularly beneficial for breast health, rather, focusing on overall dietary components is wise. I encourage clients to put more plants on their plate, filling at least 2/3 of their plate with veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and soy. Choose heart healthy oils like olive and avocado. Swap refined sugar for unrefined sugar options like coconut sugar, maple syrup, molasses, and honey. Focus on getting plenty of fiber, use spices and herbs, and choose foods that make them feel great vs guilty.  

Rage and anger often motivate significant change. How did you transform these emotions into a positive force to develop programs like Peaceful Plate, and what advice would you offer to individuals grappling with similar emotions post-diagnosis?

I was very angry about my diagnosis, but I soon realized that the anger was becoming corrosive. Also, I don’t lead my life as an angry person, but I was beginning to view the world with impatience, frustration and fury. Not a good place to be. I made a decision to channel those strong emotions into healing, and that’s the advice I offer anyone struggling with all those strong post-diagnosis emotions: you get to decide how you want to get through anything. Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. 

As advocates of the power of nutrition, what emotional and personal aspects should individuals prioritize in their diet to reclaim their health after hormone-positive breast cancer treatment?

Managing emotions is a skill we all can learn, and I encourage anyone struggling to get support in that area. Regarding the use of diet to reclaim their health, I share the same recommendations as above: eat a plant-forward diet, choose foods full of nutrients to help your body rebuild, and realize that when you eat for breast health you’re supporting your overall best health!

Your personal journey involves resilience and adaptation. Could you share a pivotal moment or lesson learned during the development of Peaceful Plate that significantly shaped its direction or impact on the breast cancer community?

The lesson is definitely one of resilience! While I’ve done this work for many years, Peaceful Plate is just a little over one year old; it’s taken some trial and error to find the best way to support other survivors who are looking for post-treatment nutrition support and guidance.

Your blend of expertise as a registered dietitian, personal trainer and survivor uniquely positions you. How do these varied roles converge in your approach to supporting breast cancer survivors through nutrition and fitness?

I’ve had the great fortune to work in the disciplines of nutrition, fitness and psychology for many years. My experience helping hundreds of people improve their nutritional health and relationship with food translates beautifully to working with breast cancer survivors, because I can guide them on all the components necessary to rebuild their health; food, fitness and consistent healthy behaviors. Having walked the same breast cancer path, my clients often say how much they appreciate that I “get them”!

What advice would you offer to newly diagnosed breast cancer survivors struggling with dietary choices and post-treatment anxiety?

Don’t try to figure it out on your own; there’s no need to stay stuck and miserable struggling with the panic, frustration, confusion, and guilt. After treatment ends, women need someone to validate what they know about nutrition, fill in the gaps that are missing, and troubleshoot the rough areas. Professional help to address individual needs is invaluable and available to help you move forward in your survivorship healing!

What does our mantra “Beauty of Change” mean to you?

After breast cancer, there’s not a single woman who isn’t “changed” on some level; finding beauty in that change, rather than resisting it, is powerfully healing.