It is impossible to miss the pink ribbons that decorate the month of October.
As you know October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. For many women, breast cancer is their most feared disease. The overwhelming “awareness” of the disease which was meant to encourage screenings has only added fear for many women.
In Preventative Medicine magazine, 80% of women state they are moderately or very afraid of the diagnosis of breast cancer and rate this as one of their greatest fears. Despite these fears, the reality is 90% of women will never get this diagnosis.
Breast Cancer Awareness month was established in 1985 by AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company responsible for the development of Tamoxifen and Arimidez, common chemotherapy agents used in the treatment of breast cancer. In the first decade, the emphasis on breast cancer awareness increased breast screening through mammograms from 26% to over 70%. The increase in screening did appear to increase the diagnosis of breast cancer through sheer numbers.
Unfortunately for every one breast cancer patient diagnosed there were ten women who had unnecessary biopsies or treatments for false positives.
These numbers have led to studies to look at screening and treatment modalities. The Preventative Services Task Force recommended changes to screening in 2009. Their recommendations were confusing to women and caused an outrage among several healthcare agencies supportive of the current practices. All of the experts still can’t agree on what is best for women and it will be a few years before they do. Until then, women must take an active and personal role in breast health and cancer prevention.
Breast screening is not breast health.
There is increasing evidence to suggest that lifestyle and dietary changes play a significant role in the prevention of chronic diseases, including breast cancer.
We need to move away from the victim mentality and just wait for a diagnosis to come. Fear is not healthy. It increases stress and stress hormones like cortisol which have been shown to significantly inhibit our immune system and our overall health. Instead of fearing a diagnosis of breast cancer, women should take preventative measures to avoid such a diagnosis. There are no guarantees and even the woman who lives a pristine life (if she exists) could ultimately develop cancer, yet the current data support that a few changes in lifestyle can have a big impact on cancer risk.
- MANAGE WEIGHT ( GOAL BMI <25): There is clear evidence that women with an increase in body fat, especially visceral abdominal fat, have a significant increase in risk of breast cancer. A review of over 70 clinical trials showed a 34% increase in breast cancer development in women with increased BMI. Body fat makes estrogen through the actions of an enzyme called Aromatase. The estrogen produced is unopposed and felt to be the culprit in the development of breast cancer.
- AVOID SUGAR & REFINED CARBOHYDRATES (Mostly the white stuff-sugar and white flour): A diet that is rich in sugar and refined carbohydrates causes the production of high insulin levels. The increase in insulin, in turn, causes an increase in IGF-1 a growth factor that has been shown to cause the growth of breast cells in utero. An increase in IGF-1 is associated with breast cancer. Higher insulin levels also cause cellular inflammation which is also felt to be a precursor for all cancers. Thirdly, the increase in insulin levels also reduces the production of Steroid Binding globulin (SBG) a protein produced to bind unopposed estrogens. A decrease in SBG would allow even more estrogens to circulate in the bloodstream.
- GET ADEQUATE VITAMIN D: Optimal blood levels of Vitamin D are 40-60mg/dl to allow adequate availability for its multitude of functions in the body, including its role in reducing inflammation. Most women are deficient in this vitamin. It is said that if all women had normal levels there would be 50,000 fewer breast cancer diagnoses every year. Women should try to get some sunlight exposure daily and should take at least 2000-3000 units of Vitamin D3 a day. Blood levels should be checked at yearly visits to confirm they are adequate. The optimal range for vitamin D is 50-80 ng/mL.
- EAT MORE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES: Studies have shown that fruits and vegetables have antioxidants and phytochemicals that reduce free radicals which prevent cell damage and mutation. Many of these antioxidants and phytonutrients also help to dry the process of detoxification and methylation in the liver. The very processes are responsible for hormone and toxin breakdown and removal. For example, cruciferous vegetables are considered bimodulators which means not only are they powerful antioxidants they drive all steps of the detoxification system. Therefore, they have been named one of the anticancer vegetables. It is important to include all the colors of the rainbow as each color represents a phytochemical that plays a different role in protection. Women should aim to get a minimum of 8 and preferably 12 servings a day. Plant materials are also high in fiber and lignans that help the body excrete excess estrogens in the stool. Women should also aim to consume organic, non-GMO produce as much as possible.
- GET ADEQUATE OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS IN DIET: Studies have shown that diets high in Omega 3 fatty acids are associated with a lower risk of developing breast cancer. Omega 3 fatty acids prevent inflammation and tumor growth throughout the body. Diets that include salmon, sardines, and swordfish, as well as flaxseed, hemp, and chia seed, are high in omega fatty acids. Most Americans are very deficient in fatty acid intake so often a dietary supplement is needed. Dietary supplements of DHA (200-400 mg/day) or purified fish oil (1000- 3000 mg/day) can also be taken.
- EXERCISE REGULARLY: Studies have shown that women who engage in moderate to strenuous exercise one hour four times a week may reduce breast cancer risks by 37%. This is related to the reduction of blood sugar and insulin levels and decreases in body fat. Exercise is also a great stress reducer. Stress increases Cortisol which contributes to fat deposition and inflammation.
- REMOVE BPAs FROM HOUSEHOLD: Bisphenol A was developed initially to be used as a synthetic estrogen but was later replaced by DES, a known teratogen. Now it is used in containers and to line cans. This substance mimics the action of estrogen and is linked to breast cancer, thyroid issues, and infertility. Aim to remove all items with this substance and only buy foods in BPA-free cans and containers. Never cook food in plastic containers as this cooks the chemical right into the food. Whenever possible switch to metal or glass bottles or containers. BPAs have permeated our environment so it is impossible to completely remove them but the changes in your day-to-day practices will make a huge difference.
- MINIMIZE ALCOHOL INTAKE: Studies looking at alcohol consumption have shown an increase in risk of breast cancer. Some studies show a 60% increase in women who consume one or more drinks per day. Higher alcohol intake affects the functioning of the liver in detoxification and elimination of excess circulating estrogens. Aim to limit alcohol consumption to less than two drinks a week and when alcohol is consumed consider red wine which is high in Resveratrol, a potent antioxidant that also reduces the action of Aromatase, the enzyme that produces estrogen in fat cells. But to be clear no alcohol is always better than any alcohol, even with the resveratrol.
- DON’T PUT ANYTHING ON YOUR SKIN THAT YOU WOULD NOT PUT IN YOUR MOUTH: Re-evaluate all skincare and cosmetics. Many cosmetics have high levels of cadmium, phthalates, and parabens. Cadmium is a ubiquitous, heavy metal pollutant in the environment and in fertilizers. It is in high levels in many cosmetics. Studies have shown an association of his toxic metal and breast cancer. Phthalates and Parabens are found in many cosmetics and also in 99% of breast cancer specimens. There are many options for organic paraben-free cosmetics available (Check out EWG’s Healthy Living app to get ratings on over130,000 personal care, cleaning, and food products)
- AVOID ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS, PROCESSED FOODS, PRESERVATIVES, AND TOBACCO USE.: There is no place for these substances in the American diet and lifestyle. If it is not real food or does not contain real ingredients it has no right to be in our bodies. Enough said.