After almost twenty years of discussing breast cancer with patients I continue to be surprised by how many women know so little about what causes it. I find that most women believe it is a genetic disease; however, 80% of women who get breast cancer do not have a relative with it and research has shown that less than 10% of breast cancer is genetic. I believe this ignorance has at its origin several causes. One, there has been a pre-occupation with a “cure.” However, despite decades of research and billions of dollars spent, a cure is not on the horizon. My assertion is that we already have the cure: don’t get breast cancer in the first place! Two, the media has muddled the facts about risk and prevention by its love affair with controversy: one day something is good for you the next day it isn’t. This often results in the defeatist attitude by many of us that “everything causes cancer!” And finally, a lack of knowledge regarding how a woman can prevent breast cancer is due to unwillingness by the American Cancer Society, the National Institute of Health and other breast cancer support organizations to discuss prevention in any meaningful way. Sure, they all have information on various “risk factors” but when push comes to shove, they all claim that “we don’t know what causes breast cancer” and that “there is no single cause.” Agreed. There is no single cause; so let’s avoid all of the known, reasonable causes that will help to prevent breast cancer!
I’ve distilled down from the many potential risk factors four significant factors that have strong or fairly strong correlation with breast cancer. They are to: 1) Lose Weight, 2) Improve Your Diet, 3) Avoid Chest/Breast Radiation and 4) Avoid Hormones and Chemicals.
1) Lose Weight: There is a strong correlation between excess body fat and breast cancer. This may be due to the fact that fat increases estrogen levels and/or the connection between belly fat and increased insulin (insulin makes tumors grow). Whatever the cause, studies have clearly associated high body fat with increased breast cancer, a higher frequency of breast cancer re-occurrence, and increased likelihood that cancer will spread. A March 2012 study in Cancer Prevention Research found that obese pre-menopausal women had a 70% increased risk of breast cancer.
It is challenging to decrease body fat. My recommendation is to adopt a balanced, low-glycemic diet that focuses on fruits and vegetables. Journaling is very helpful as well, as it forces you to examine what you are really eating. Additionally, a consultation with a practitioner experienced in sensible weight loss is a great idea.
2) Improve Your Diet: Studies have shown that a low-fat and high-fiber diet protects against breast cancer; in other words, eat more fruits and vegetables. I term this a “plant-based” diet. This doesn’t mean you have to be vegetarian, but it does mean that you should be eating, on a daily basis, bitter leafy greens such as kale, arugula, collard greens and spinach. Furthermore, you should be limiting animal products, choosing lean, healthy meats and fish when possible. Brassica family vegetables like broccoli and cabbage contain Indole-3-carbinol, a plant chemical shown to stop the growth of breast cancer. Other dietary factors that are important include limiting alcohol consumption (2 drinks or less per week) and decreasing overall calorie intake. An obvious benefit of decreasing caloric intake is weight loss—further decreasing cancer risk.
3) Avoid Chest/Breast Radiation: We’ve known that x-ray radiation causes cancer for over 100 years. Strangely enough, our “gold standard” in breast cancer screening is a test that squashes the breast as flat as humanly possible, to then irradiate it. Yes, I am speaking of the beloved mammogram. Beloved, because despite research demonstrating its potential harm, and despite the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommending to start mammograms at the age of fifty, doctors are still insisting that women get mammograms at the age of forty. In my practice I use Breast Thermography to screen for breast cancer. This test, which identifies abnormal blood flow associated with cancer, is especially good for younger women (under the age of 40) in which mammograms cause more cancer than they find.
4) Avoid Hormones and Chemicals: With the release of the findings of the Women’s Health Initiative, it is proven that hormone replacement therapy contributes to breast cancer. What has emerged in its place is “bio-identical” or “bio-equivalent” hormone therapy, touted as being safer than synthetic hormones. To date, however, the safety of bio-identical hormones has not been adequately studied. The fact is that bio-identical hormones are still hormones, and hormones stimulate breast tissue. A woman’s own hormones stimulate breast tissue. Obviously we need and desire hormones, but with regard to post-menopausal hormone replacement, we should not confuse “deficiency therapy” with “lifestyle drug.” In other words, menopause is not a deficiency disease but rather the natural process of aging and women considering hormone replacement should weigh the risk versus benefit.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are over 200 man-made chemicals that can be found in the human body. Some of these chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA) are particularly nasty, acting as “endocrine disruptors,” even with extremely small exposures. BPA, found in plastics and in the lining of canned goods, has been shown to stimulate the growth of estrogen-dependent breast cancers. A recent study found that parabens, estrogenic compounds contained in many skin care products, deposit in breast tissue. Although there is not a clear correlation between parabens and breast cancer, I think I’ll avoid anything that deposits in my breast tissue, thank you very much. The point is, many man-made chemicals are estrogenic and thus have the potential to stimulate breast cancer. They are best avoided. Stay away from plastics as well as canned goods that do not have BPA-free linings. And yes, soda cans are lined with BPA.
The goal of this article has been to empower the reader with meaningful ways to decrease breast cancer risk. Sure, you can find news blurbs that focus on contradiction and controversy, as well as the myriad of minor factors that may or may not increase breast cancer, but most lack research and distract us from the most important preventive factors. Unfortunately, this gives rise to confusion and inaction. Not everything causes cancer. And conversely, some things prevent cancer. Focus on the big risk factors and take action now to prevent breast cancer!