'I'm an Oncologist, and This Is the Breakfast I Eat Almost Every Day for Cancer Prevention'

Woman making breakfast

Unfortunately, cancer can happen to anyone—a fact that is physically and emotionally painful and unfair. We don't always know why cancer happens to someone, and people can't control every aspect of their health. However, food choices are one factor people should feel empowered to make, knowing they can play into reducing the risk for cancer.

"Food influences every part of our body and builds us up," says Dr. Michelina Cairo, MD, an oncologist with Memorial Hermann. "Vitamin and mineral-packed whole foods provide our bodies with the elements they need to repair damage and be resilient."

Diet and healthy eating can be dirty terms for several reasons, including because they're sometimes associated with bland, insufficient meals. Dr. Cairo is not about that.

"I truly believe you don’t have to suffer to eat healthy," she says.

As a busy oncologist, Dr. Cairo constantly focuses on her patients and carries a heavy workload. However, she makes time for a breakfast that leaves her satisfied from a taste and health standpoint. It may even help her reduce her cancer risk. Here's what an oncologist eats regularly to lower her risk of cancer and improve her overall health (and keep her tastebuds and tummy happy).

Related: ‘I’m a Cardiologist—This Is the Breakfast I Eat Every Morning To Support My Heart Health'

What an Oncologist Eats Regularly for Breakfast to Lower Her Cancer Risk

Dr. Cairo loves oatmeal. Surprised to see that here? If you told Dr. Cairo she'd be an oatmeal fan "back in the day," she would have raised an eyebrow too. "I was never an oatmeal eater growing up—mostly because it came from a package and had no texture and too much sugar," Dr. Cairo admits. "These days, I keep rolled oats in my cupboard."

A half-cup of rolled oats doesn't have any sugar, but it does have 4 grams of fiber. That separates rolled oats from some pre-packaged instant, flavored brands. While a packet of Quaker Instant Oatmeal Cinnamon Spice has 3 grams of fiber, it also contains 10 grams of added sugar.

While more research is needed, an examination of data published in 2022 indicated that there's substantial evidence linking added sugar with metabolic syndrome, which is a cancer risk factor.

It's not just about what rolled oats don't have but what they do. "Oatmeal is made from a whole grain heated with just water," Dr. Cairo says of her beloved rolled oats. "From a nutrition perspective, it’s packed with energy and not processed."

While a 2020 meta-analysis indicated that the link between refined grain intake and cancer risk is inconclusive, researchers noted that studies consistently found that consuming whole grains was linked with lower odds of cancer.

A systemic review and meta-analysis published in Clinical Nutrition in 2023 indicated that the current evidence suggests a significant link between ultra-processed food consumption and the chances of developing cancer, including breast, pancreatic and colorectal cancers. This finding supports research from 2018, which indicated that ultra-processed food intake was linked with an increased risk of breast cancer. However, the authors called for more research into why, such as whether food additives and nutritional composition play a role.

Related: The #1 Change I Noticed When I Ate a Bowl of Oatmeal for Breakfast Every Day for a Week

Other Reasons an Oncologist Adores Oatmeal

Eating for your health is an excellent idea—that goes without saying. Yet Dr. Cairo loves oatmeal for more than its health benefits, like reducing cancer risk.

For starters, let's be real: Dr. Cairo is busy, and you may be too. Oatmeal is clutch in that regard.

"Oatmeal is so fast," she says. "I can scoop out half a cup into a bowl with my spices and water, microwave for two minutes and add fresh fruit. Then, it’s time to eat."

Opting for overnight oats? That could be even better.

"Overnight oats can’t be beaten for grab-and-go convenience," Dr. Cairo shares. "I don’t always make my best decisions when pressed for time. Having a portable healthy breakfast that satisfies my sweet tooth with fruit and maybe a little honey or oat milk helps keep me on track during busy weekdays."

Also, variety is the spice of life, right? Yet, eating the same thing constantly can get boring. Oatmeal is like a blank slate.

"Oatmeal and its cousin overnight oats are endlessly riffable," she says. "I can add whatever flavors I’m craving and use whatever fresh fruits I have handy. Sometimes, I crave the comfort of oatmeal with banana and peanut butter without added sugar."

When the temperature dips? "The warmth of apple, cinnamon and a teaspoon of honey warms up a cool morning," Dr. Cairo recommends. "Other days, overnight oats are dressed up with chia seeds and blueberries. If I’m short on fresh fruit, a teaspoon of jam can stand in a pinch."

Still not feeling the idea of eating oatmeal on the regular? Fair enough.

"Eggs are an outstanding breakfast staple and can be prepared in so many variations," Dr. Cairo tells us. "Spiced up with salsa and wrapped in a corn tortilla or served with avocado on toast, eggs are winners for a high protein start to the day that keep you energized."

Related: Here's What Happens to Your Body if You Eat Oatmeal Every Day

Tips for Building a Healthier Breakfast

1. Limit processed foods and sugar

As discussed, some research links these foods with higher cancer risk, so it's best to minimize eating them for breakfast (or any time).

"I’m looking at you, fast foods," Dr. Cairo says. "Boxed [or] packaged toaster treats or breakfast cereals are also less healthy than the box suggests."

Of course, you may love the taste, which is important—Dr. Cairo gets it—but would suggest that you take a beat and tune into your needs.

"Next time you make a fast, convenient, sugary, processed choice, just pause while you eat and take a moment to notice how it tastes," Dr. Cairo suggests. "What flavors do you notice? Do they taste good? What is the texture? Is it pleasing on the palate? How do you feel afterward? Does the energy last until the next meal? Do you feel satisfied? Your 'gut instinct' will lead you in the right direction."

You may be able to satisfy these cravings in other ways, such as with whole fruits if you're craving something sweet.

2. Opt for whole foods with fiber

Whole foods are typically less processed and contain less sugar. As for fiber? It's a key ingredient to keeping your stomach happy.

"Fiber present in whole fruits and vegetables is like the broom that sweeps the inflammation out of your gut," Dr. Cairo says. "Mother Nature put fiber with her sweet fruits. She knew what she was doing."

3. Make a plan

Too much of any food—even oatmeal—can lead to overeating (and the health risks that accompany doing it too often, plus the GI discomfort of doing it even once). Portion control can help ward off all that.

"Portion control is easiest to achieve when you choose and pack your own meal ahead of time," Dr. Cairo explains. "We all make a lot of decisions all day and are just out of energy when it comes to lunch."

Next up: New Research Says This Popular Drink May Cause Liver Damage—Here's What a Hepatologist Wants You to Know


  • Dr. Michelina Cairo, MD, an oncologist with Memorial Hermann

  • Rolled oats. FoodData Central.

  • Understanding the Link between Sugar and Cancer: An Examination of the Preclinical and Clinical Evidence. Cancers.

  • Whole Grains, Refined Grains, and Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review of Meta-Analyses of Observational Studies. Nutrients.

  • Ultra-processed food consumption and cancer risk: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Nutrition.

  • Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. BMJ.

  • Meal planning is associated with food variety, diet quality and body weight status in a large sample of French adults. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.