There has been much publicity recently surrounding breast cancer genes. The nature of this publicity has understandably led to a fair bit of confusion and chaos. However, it is important to realise less than 10% of breast cancers have a genetic basis, and in the case of having a particular gene defect, it does not necessarily mean the gene will be expressed to cause the cancer. Every- body’s risk profile will be unique.  It’s abundantly clear many other factors are at play, which determines whether someone will develop breast cancer or not. Gene expression is influenced by the environment around it (factors such as toxins, nutrients, as well as “fluffy” stuff  like  thoughts and emotions).

Although we can’t do anything about our genetics, there’s still much that can be done to reduce overall risk of cancer – as well as other lifestyle illnesses. A healthy lifestyle with balanced nutrition, regular exercise, adequate sleep, stress management/relaxation, and reducing radiation/environmental exposures, is ultimately what we should be aiming for to achieve optimal health. The aim here is to give you an overview of some important recommendations to reduce the risk of  breast cancer –  beyond  the well known factors like smoking, alcohol consumption and breast-feeding. Here are some ways to reduce breast cancer risk:

1. Sugar/Fructose intake

“Summarised in a few words, the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar”. It was two- time Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dr Otto Warburg who in 1924 linked the fermentation of sugar as the prime cause of cancer.

Basically, cancer cells need sugar to survive. More so, fructose (sugar is sucrose which is made of the two simple sugars glucose and fructose).   In a study published in Cancer Research, it was shown that “cancer cells can readily metabolise fructose to increase proliferation” Sugar also reduces the efficiency of neutrophils (white blood cell) to do their job in destroying pathogens including cancer cells.

Further, it is important to keep glucose and hence insulin levels steady, so the concept of the glycaemic index is important. Insulin promotes tumour growth if the levels remain elevated.

So, yet another very justifiable reason to cut down on refined sugars and processed carbohydrates (e.g white bread, pasta, rice, pastries, chocolates, candy, alcohol)

2.Vitamin D levels

The association between vitamin D and cancer is now widely accepted. It also is linked to several other conditions including multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, weight management, blood pressure, Alzheimers disease and diabetes. There are vitamin D receptors in every single cell of the body. So it is no surprise that a deficiency would impact on so many conditions.  Studies have been done demonstrating that the higher the vitamin D, the less risk of breast cancer.1  

 “Epidemiological studies suggest optimal vitamin D levels can reduce cancer incidence by at least 50%” 1

 “Epidemiological studies show that in the US, for every one patient that gets a melanoma, 40-50 people get preventable cancer due to suboptimal vitamin d levels” 2

Maintaining an adequate vitamin D intake is largely from sun exposure and supplements. There is relatively little in foods. It has been estimated that our daily requirement of vitamin D is 4000-8000IU daily. Note that standard vitamin d capsules are 1000IU each. Ensure that you check your vitamin D levels; the optimal level is between 100-150nmol/l.

3. Meat consumption

– especially charred meats/”well-done”. The chemicals produced (heterocyclic amines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are known to be carcinogenic.

The UK Women’s Cohort Study also showed a link between breast cancer and meat consumption. This was a study where 35,372 women aged 35-69 years were assessed using a 217 item food frequency questionnaire. The conclusion was that women, both pre and post menopausal who consumed the most meat, had the highest risk of breast cancer. 4

4. Brassica vegetables

– eg Broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, and cauliflower. The chemicals are involved in oestrogen metabolism and they reduce tumour proliferating oestrogen metabolites (sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol in particular)

Several reports have consistently discussed the association with high fruit and vegetable intake and lower rates of cancer (AICR, World Cancer Research Fund to name but a few). This is known to be due to the powerful phytochemicals as well as the vitamins and minerals (selenium, copper,chromium,zinc).  Certain phytonutrients like resveratrol (red grapes) and ellagic acid (strawberries) are known to prevent angiogenesis– the growth of new blood vessels needed for cancer cell survival.

It is important to ensure an adequate and varied fruit and vegetable intake generally (2-3 fruit and 5-7 veggie serves daily recommended). This can be in salads or vegetable juices. Eat from all the colours of the rainbow! All the berries are powerhouses for antioxidants.  The fibre from foods (fruits, veg, healthy grains) may also help to promote the growth of bacteria that can metabolise oestrogen as well as binding to oestrogen and promoting its excretion.

5. Omega 3 oils

– This is evidence based nutritional therapy at its best. And it doesn’t stop with heart disease prevention. There is also substantial evidence of fish oil and cancer prevention.

“Dietary supplementation of fish oils rich in omega 3 PUFAs should be considered for members of high breast cancer risk families” 5

Adequate intake of oily fish (e.g salmon, mackerel) three times weekly is advisable. In any case, it’s a great idea to take 1g of omega 3 oils daily (EPA and DHA combined- not total marine oil).  Vegetarian options are flax seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds.

6. Vitamin A

– There is again much evidence for vitamin A’s role in breast cancer prevention.  Good sources are eggs, milk and vegetables like carrots and pumpkin are rich in beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A.  Supplementation may be necessary depending upon dietary restrictions.

7. Iodine

– There is evidence that iodine deficiency states are linked to breast cancer. Iodine itself has been shown to cause death of breast and thyroid  cancer cells. And it is the most common cause of hypothyroidism too.  Iodine is present in seaweed, kelp and iodized salt. As Australian soil is so low in iodine, it is not surprising that many people would be iodine deficient. To check iodine levels requires doing a urine iodine test and supplementation is easy if the levels are found to be low.

8. Curcumin

– Curry power! A real gem- this is the active ingredient in turmeric. Several studies have been done which prove it to be an antioxidant and have immune modulating properties. In cancer, it is beneficial in prevention and in reducing progression.

Apart from turmeric in cooking, capsules are also available.

9. Soy

Soy in general is a very topical matter and can be confusing!  Generally speaking, one should generally avoid unfermented soy. Fermented soy (tofu, tempeh, miso, natto) is beneficial. There are phytoestrogens (isoflavones) known to be protective in breast as well as ovarian, cervical, endometrial and prostate cancers. They occupy the oestrogen receptors over xenobiotics. 7 Isoflavones can be both oestrogenic and anti-oestrogenic. The strongest evidence is in pre menopausal women where the soy isoflavones have an anti-oestrogenic effect (in a high oestrogen environment) and a weak oestrogenic effect in post menopausal women (a low oestrogen environment)

10. Green tea

– There are high levels of a very powerful antioxidant abbreviated EGCG and studies have shown its effect in cancer prevention, diabetes and preventing LDL-oxidation and hence protective for heart disease and stroke. Enjoy 1-4 cups daily.

11. Alcohol

As in avoid! Yes,the resevetrol in red grapes is an antioxidant but alcohol is still a toxin. If you drink, then do so in moderation( 1 drink in a day and no more than 5 in a week)  and if you don’t, please don’t start! Alcohol has been linked to various cancers. In breast cancer, it is known that alcohol increases the activity of aromatase enzyme (converts steroids to oestrogen)- there is a “dose-response” effect.  An AICR report in 2007 concluded that a woman who consumes 5 drinks weekly has an increased risk of breast cancer by 5%. A woman consuming 2 drinks daily has increased her risk to 40%.

12.Exercise

This will help to maintain a healthy weight and increase insulin sensitivity. It is important to keep the insulin levels down with diet and exercise together. High insulin levels and obesity have been linked to increased cancer incidence; excess fatty tissue also produces oestrogen (the more fatty tissue, the more amount of aromatase enzyme that converts steroids to oestrogen)

A study just published this month showed a   beneficial association of exercise in women in relation to breast cancer.  Essentially, oestrogen metabolites were measured in 2 groups of women- those exercising 5 times weekly for 4 months and the other group doing no exercise. They found that those women who were exercising had more of the “good” oestrogen metabolite and less of the “bad” one ; there was no change in those who didn’t exercise. Professor Kurzer, University of Minnesota concluded: “Exercise, known to favor fitness and improve heart health, is also likely to help prevent breast cancer by altering estrogen metabolism.” 8

13. Sleep

Adequate sleep is necessary for overall health. If sleep is disrupted, less melatonin hormone is produced- a powerful antioxidant as well.  Research has indeed found that women who consistently did night shifts had higher rates of breast cancer.

14. Environment

Xenostrogens – These are chemicals that have oestrogen-like activity and have been shown to increase breast cancer risk. Many are pesticides/herbicides/fungicides, BPA ( used in plastic containers)  and  phthalates and parabens used extensively in personal care products. Practical  risk reduction  would include getting organic fruits and vegetables, avoiding/minimizing use of plastic water bottles, heating food in plastic containers in the microwave and  using  natural products that state they are free of parabens and other similar substances.

14. Electromagnetic radiation (EMR)

Reducing exposure to EMR  is important for overall health, not just in cancer prevention. Again, a much researched area and plenty of evidence to support, just a few practical ways would be switching off wireless when not needed, reducing mobile phone use and that of electric blankets.

15. Emotional/ Spiritual

Emotions affect our  physical state and copious amount of research has been done on this.   Indeed, even the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) stated “Up to 90 % of the doctor visits in the USA may be triggered by a stress-related condition”.  As such, it is important to resolve negative emotions like anger, fear, sadness, resentment and guilt. Whatever works for you- meditation, exercise, emotional freedom technique, tai chi, acupuncture, time line therapy, counselling, yoga, prayer… and don’t forget gratitude.

Let’s end with this…

“At least 70% of all cancer is directly attributable to poor lifestyle choices” – World Health Organisation

References

1. Abbas et al. Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D and risk of post-menopausal breast cancer-results of a large case –control study. Carcinogenesis 2008. Vol 29 No1. P93

2. Garland et al. The role of vitamin D in cancer prevention. Am J Public Health. 2006. Feb:96(2):252-61. Epub 2005 Dec 27. Review

3. Grant et al. Benefits and requirements of vitamin d for optimal health;a review. Alter Med Rev. 2005 Jun;10(2):94-111.

4. British Journal of Cancer Apr 10;96(7):1139-46

5. Franceschi et al. Int J Cancer 1997;72

6. Nagabhushan et al. J Am Coll Nutrition. 1992. Vol 11. P192

7. Adelcreutz. J of Clinc Nut 1995 (125)

8. Alma J Smith, William R Phipps, William Thomas, Kathryn H Schmitz, and Mindy S Kurzer. The effects of aerobic exercise on estrogen metabolism in healthy premenopausal women. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2013;22:756-764.

Further reading

Molecules of Emotion – Candice Pert

Breast cancer- Reduce your risk with foods you love- Robert Pendergrast MD

The Secret language of your body- Inna Segal

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"Health is a unity of emotional, nutritional, physical and spiritual health. It is important to nurture all of these different aspects for you to be the best version of yourself. Health is an investment, not a cost - Value yourself. Motto: "Be the change you wish to see in the world"- Gandhi