When conversations about breast cancer turn to cutting-edge developments there’s a good chance the topic will center on genomics or molecular biology. Other advancements that get the spotlight are specialized treatments targeting abnormal cells without harming healthy ones. Newer, more precise surgical procedures that conserve breast tissue also make the news.
All of these innovations are important. Individually and in combination, they hold the potential to be part of the multidisciplinary approach to a future breast cancer cure. In the meantime, there are some noteworthy breakthroughs related to breast cancer linked to the way you live and your commitment to self-care. That’s because with breast cancer as with many other conditions, the best treatment includes effective prevention.
Some thoughts about risk factors
There are two types of breast cancer risks: those you can control and those you can’t. Being a woman is your biggest uncontrollable risk, as is growing older. You also can’t control a family history of breast cancer including close relatives on your father’s side, too. Another risk factor unrelated to personal choice is dense breast tissue – which means your breast has more glandular and fibrous tissue and less fatty tissue. Early menstruation is still another factor you can’t do anything about. And while genetic mutations make the news, they are relatively rare and occur in only around 5% or slightly more of women.
Eating your way to better breast health
The thought of risk factors that you can’t control may seem a little discouraging. But the good news is that there are personal choices you can make that can improve your risk profile, and eating is a good place to start. Regarding a dietary approach to breast health, keep the following three considerations in mind:
There’s no magic bullet: No specific foods or diet can keep you from getting breast cancer. On the plus side a large amount of research over the years indicates that a plant-based diet – one rich in fruits and vegetables and low in animal fat – may decrease your risk for other types of cancer as well as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Higher weight, higher risk: A healthy diet also helps you maintain a healthy weight which is a definite protective factor for breast cancer. Overweight and obese women, usually defined as individuals having a body mass index (BMI) over 25, have a higher risk of breast cancer, especially after menopause. This higher risk is due to the fact that fat cells make estrogen and estrogen can make certain tumors – called hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers – develop and grow.
Go for the colors: There may not be, as we mentioned, a definitive anti-carcinogenic diet for breast cancer … at least not yet. But a growing body of research including a study by researchers at Harvard Medical School and the National Institutes of Health indicates that women who ate foods high in carotenoids had a 19% lower risk of breast cancer. Carotenoids are found in “colorful” fruits and vegetables like dark leafy greens, red bell peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, strawberries and tomatoes.
The study, as described in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, speculated that carotenoids, which are categorized as phytonutrients (also found in whole grains, nuts and beans), can help prevent breast cancer by regulating cell growth and blocking the growth of tumors.
The lower risk was especially noted
with estrogen receptor-negative types
of breast cancer.
Although more studies need to be done on the protective power of diet and nutrition, the results are promising. And while we highly recommend you include more of these colorful fruits and vegetables in your diet, remember that it’s important to thoroughly wash all produce, even if it’s home grown or organic.
Where Exercise Fits Into the Prevention Picture
Like healthier eating, exercise is a low-tech way to reduce your risk of breast cancer while improving your overall health. The preventive factors related to exercise come in at least two ways: exercise helps control blood levels of insulin-like growth factor, a hormone that can affect how breast cells grow and behave; it also helps you maintain a healthier weight – a critical breast cancer prevention benefit given the relationship between obesity and estrogen development.
Guidelines for physical activity published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly, plus strength training at least twice a week. Our advice would be to focus on the “at least” and do your best to get even more exercise. You don’t have to start training for a marathon and any exercise is better than none, but given the ease of access to activities like walking, this is an area where, within limits, more is better.
More Breast Cancer Risk Factors You Can Influence
Within the category of lifestyle choices there are a number of other ways to reduce your risk for breast cancer:
- Drinking Alcohol: Research shows that alcohol consumption can increase estrogen levels which are associated with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Drinking may also damage the DNA in cells which, in turn, can increase breast cancer risk. This is a tough choice because light drinking may also have some related health benefits. The best advice here is that if you consider yourself to be a moderate drinker, get even more moderate.
Smoking: Nothing to consider here except quitting. Smoking causes and contributes to a wide range of diseases and is strongly linked to a higher breast cancer risk in premenopausal women. There is also a link between heavy second-hand smoke exposure and breast cancer in older, postmenopausal women.
Hormone Replacement Therapy: This is another risk-benefit consideration but it’s well documented that estrogen stimulates breast cell growth and can increase the risk of breast cancer. If you use estrogen alone or combination hormone therapy (estrogen and progesterone) you should limit the dose and duration as much as possible. If you’re taking HRT for menopausal symptoms you can also talk with your care provider about other options.
Breast Feeding: Pregnancy and childbirth offer hormone-related protection against breast cancer. To complete the trifecta of benefits, studies also show that breast feeding for at least one year can reduce your risk.
Get to Know Your PCP: The mutually trusting relationship you develop with your primary care provider is a strong determinant of better health in general, helps improve your breast cancer risk profile and reduces your risks for other cancers through early detection.
Breast Cancer Breakthroughs within Your Reach
What we know is that some women
will develop breast cancer even with reduced risks. Others, most women in fact, will not get breast cancer even with some risk factors.
In any case, it’s vitally important to focus on the fact that breast cancer prevention begins with healthier habits and choices. As we said earlier, the breast cancer advancements that get all the attention are generally related to innovations in medical science and technology. Since those developments are outside most of our daily experience it’s comforting to know that you can have a direct impact on your breast cancer risk profile and create a breakthrough on a very personal level.
For more on
and maintaining a healthy weight you can reach Jacqueline Ambrose, R.D., at Riverside Tappahannock Hospital: 804-443-6179 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For information related to women’s health in general and breast health in particular, talk with Janet DeHoux, N.P. at Riverside Partners in Women’s Health: 804-693-2670, email@example.com.