Breast cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer in women and the second most common cancer overall (https://www.wcrf.org/).
Currently, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and in the last few years, France, has been in the top five countries worldwide showing a rate of 99 women per 100,000 (https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/breast-cancer-statistics/).
Diet and nutrition therapy are becoming popular natural adjuncts to conventional treatment in oncology particularly in breast cancer where lifestyle ‘risks’ are easily reduced.
Cancer is not directly ‘treated’ by a nutritional practitioner (BANT, 2005), instead, the aim is to reduce the associated dietary and lifestyle risks for recurrence and to help improve side-effects from treatment which can be possible through good nutrition, exercise and stress management (Granger, 2017).
So what might cause breast cancer?
Genetics play a significant role in risk but it is usually epigenetics (diet, lifestyle and environmental factors) which will be the main cause of cancer actually occurring eg. 5% of cancers are caused by genetic abnormalities thus 95% of cancers are cause by other factors – that’s HUGE! But the good news is that we can do lots to protect ourselves thus reducing our risk.
When to worry
Most lumps and bumps we feel are likely not cancer but it is helpful to self-check regularly and if you experience any of the following, see your doctor:
a lump or thickening of skin of the breast or underarm
change in size or shape
sudden inverted nipple
skin irritation or changes including puckering, creases, dimpling or scaliness
warm red swollen breast with or without orange peel dimpling
pain in breast which doesn’t go away
Your doctor may send you for a mammogram and often an ultrasound if you have dense breast tissue.
Breast cancer risk factors
Risk increases as we get older, most cancers occur in our 50s and risk increases in 60s but as our bodies slow down, the rate of progressions does too so we have more time to deal with it, in our 40s, it can be very quick to progress.
We have discussed this already, it is a risk we should check out if we have female relatives who had cancer at a younger age particularly breast and ovarian.
Westerners are more at risk than African/Afro-Caribbean, Hispanic or Asian but interestingly enough, we hear of Japanese women, living in a Blue Zone where there is virtually no breast cancer but if they move to the US, the risk increases from a fifth of an American woman to the same as other Americans by the 2nd or 3rd generation if they adopt a Western diet, this shows that diet and lifestyle has one of the biggest influences on risk which is great as we can do so much to help ourselves reduce these risks.
Estrogen stimulates breast cells; the longer we are exposed to it, the more chance there is of something going wrong i.e. the younger we get our period and the older we are going through menopause, whether we had children or not all alter the length of our exposure to higher estrogen levels as well as when we had our children and if we breast-fed. The Pill can also increase risk of breast cancer but may protect us against other gynecological cancers. HRT use has an associated risk and should be discussed with the doc to way up the pros and cons before use.
….which is considered after the age of 30. This is because while we are pregnant, the hormone progesterone is dominant lowering our exposure to estrogen. This is also true during breastfeeding so we are advised to do it for as long as we can benefiting us as well as baby.
The denser our breasts are, the higher our risk as cancer normally develops in the dense tissue and not the fatty tissue. Also, the dense tissue is harder to check on a mammogram hence, it is common to have an ultrasound too.
Xenoestrogens…..xeno means foreign so xenoestrogens are not actual estrogen but foreign particles in our environment that have roughly the same chemical structure as estrogen therefore can bind with the same cell receptors acting like estrogen. These xenoestrogens or ‘pollutants’ come from second hand smoke, air pollution, pesticides, herbicides, power lines, radiation, even electric blankets and some of the food we eat and personal care products we use.
Regular exercise can lower our risk by 60%. Say no more!
One drink daily can increase risk by 10%, 2 drinks, 20% and on and on.
No need to say anything here.
We can’t underestimate the power of our minds. This might be one biggest influencers on who gets cancer. Stress can be one of the top risk factors as when we are stressed, we set in motion a huge cascade of damaging hormone signaling. There is a lot we can do to alleviate stress and it can be one of the most important changes we make, incorporating stress-reducing techniques into our day.
Being overweight creates risk. Our fat cells actually produce estrogen, exposing our bodies to higher levels – often if we are overweight, we suffer more from PMS / PMT symptoms etc which could be due to the increase in estrogen levels. When we lose weight, we are actually detoxing our bodies and reducing estrogen production. Conversely, after menopause when we might want to increase our estrogen levels, our bodies hang on to a little more belly fat than usual so we have a little more estrogen production in addition to what our adrenal glands produce after the ovaries give up.
Eating fatty foods, especially animal products increases risk as the toxins from that animal’s life are stored in its fat including herbicides, pesticides, hormones, growth factors and antibiotics.
So, what can we do to help ourselves?
Our goal in promoting breast health is to reduce as many of the risk factors we have discussed as much as we can. Obviously we can’t change our genes so we have to act to ensure we have the best diet and lifestyle possible which can help influence some of our genes in switching them on or off.
Areas to work on include:
stress reduction & increasing positivity
supplements when necessary
Stress levels need evaluated; sometimes we do not even realise we are stressed! Spending time outdoors in nature, practising yoga or tai chi and having social interaction with others can all help reduce stress.
Have some ‘me’ time daily – do something you love just for you!
Be happy and grateful for what you have.
Thinking positively and trying not to worry and stress too much over things we can’t control is a waste of energy and nutrients (our body uses antioxidants like vitamin C at an alarming rate when we stress) – and every cell in our body is listening to our thoughts so let’s make them happy ones.
A healthy lifestyle would include daily exercise; 30 minutes at least doing something you enjoy is great for the body and mind reducing stress and estrogen levels as well as helping to maintain a healthy weight. Mindfulness techniques to reduce stress (as above); don’t worry – be happy!
Alcohol intake needs to be moderated; we can drink a little to relax but don’t overdo it.
Sleep is also very important and we must prioritise getting a good 8 hours a night to help balance our hormones and support our immune system.
A healthy diet is paramount in cancer prevention and a Mediterranean style diet comes out top for nutrient density, variety, high fibre content and healthy oils:
To lower our cancer risk, we should include the following in our diet:
fish - cold water, oily fish (sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring
soy and other legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
cruciferous veg – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and rocket
vegetables (mainly above ground)
nuts & seeds
On the contrary, there are dietary factors that can increase risk:
low provenance & processed meats and their cooking method – don’t overcook or burn; minimize grilling & BBQ and don’t char.
high intake of saturated fats from animal fats
dairy – non-organic cow
A few particularly beneficial foods if you consider yourself to be high risk include: flax seed, soy, pomegranate, broccoli, green tea and probiotic bacteria.
Supplementary measures are sometimes necessary to rebalance any deficiencies and I often find clients to have low vitamin D levels and in need of some liver support to help detox.
Often I get asked about fasting and cancer and yes, it can be very beneficial for some patients depending on the individual situation but it is advisable to check with your doctor first.
I have worked with cancer patients for 5 years now helping them improve their diet and lifestyle to combat side effects from treatment and to help reduce the risk of recurrence. If you are worried about your risks or need help during your treatment, please get in touch.
Reference: Textbook of Naturopathic Oncology (Parmar & Kaczor), AIIORE.com (Chilkov).