October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Pink labels on products line the shelves. The focus in on early detection and donating to find a cure. One in 8 women will develop breast cancer over the course of a lifetime. There will be an estimated 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer and 63,960 cases of non-invasive in situ breast cancer diagnosed this year. Breast cancer death rates have declined 39% from 1993 to 2015 and is attributed to early detection. However, this can also be translated to more women living with the diagnosis of breast cancer. The extra years of treatment seem to make very little difference in the real number with regards to effective treatment. These findings are disappointing, but there is great hope with regards to information on prevention and the role that nutrition can play in the treatment of diagnosed breast cancer.
Everyone knows someone who has or has had breast cancer or cancer of any type. The fear and worry induced by the diagnosis can be daunting. The fear of late detection is instilled in us in order to promote screening tests. The guilt associated with missing screening as a cause of disease is often misunderstood. It is implied that the outcome would have been better if only compliance with early screening would have been done. Physicians reading mammograms are under tremendous pressure to pick out the tiny dot that might represent an early cancer. This often leads to over-diagnosing and further invasive testing and biopsies. These subsequent procedures are not without risk and additional stress. The presumption is that we are potential victims waiting for the diagnosis of a terrible disease, and the only chance is to face the diagnosis as quickly as possible. We wait for the appearance of a cancer so that treatment can be initiated.
I believe there are other ways to interpret the data. We know that breast cancer is common in adult women, and it is more aggressive before menopause. We know some tumors respond to hormone therapy and others do not. We know that the lesion has been there in some form for many years and that some stimulus has accelerated the cell division rate to the point the tumor can grow large enough to be detected.
Perhaps we should be fighting the undetected tumor. This is precisely where nutrition can help or halt progression of these out of control cells. Angiogenesis is defined as growth of blood vessels, and when it comes to tumors, these newly formed vessels help to keep tumors growing. Many food sources contain potent substances that decrease angiogenesis and have been shown to decrease tumor growth. Some include green tea that contains polyphenol catechins. 2 to 3 cups per day can decrease these new vessels by as much as 70% and reduce tumor invasion by 50% as shown in mice studies, and have also shown promise in human studies. The often controversial soybean contains an isoflavonoin, genestein. It has been shown to decrease breast cancer cells by decreasing angiogenesis as well as a mechanism called apoptosis. Apoptosis is the destruction of old or abnormal cells that our body does on a regular basis but cannot keep up when tumor cells start to multiply. Genestein also blocks growth promoting receptors in the breast decreasing the growth of tumors. Soy intake of 1.5 times per week during childhood was found to decrease later breast cancer risk by 58% in a study of Asian women in California and Hawaii. There have been large scale studies that associate soy intake with decreased risk of death and recurrence of breast cancer regardless of receptor status or tamoxifen use. Eat your tempeh, tofu, soy milk and edamame. Omega-3 fatty acids which are high in kale, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and pinto beans especially, also decrease angiogenesis in breast tumor cells. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to suppress bone metastasis in breast cancer. Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, mustard greens, radishes, Brussel sprouts, bok choy, and kale contain glucosinolates, isothiocyanate, and Indole-3-carbinol. Theses substances are liberated by crushing the vegetables when eating resulting in apoptosis and a decrease in angiogenesis. The availability of these factors is somewhat better in raw versus cooked so eat your giant salad daily. The addition of mustard seeds or mustard also seems to improve the availability or potency of these substances. Can dessert help decrease tumor cell growth? Depends on what you choose. Fresh fruit contain many antioxidants and are vital for decreasing inflammation and cell growth. Chocolate in the form of cacao powder contains polyphenols and specifically proanthocyanidins that work similar to green tea to decrease tumor cell growth. I love making sorbet with bananas and dark cherries. By adding cacao powder this becomes a chocolate cherry treat that is delicious. Black bean brownies with cacao powder are also an excellent desert that pack in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Use dates as the sweetener to avoid simple sugars.
We also want to avoid animal protein and specifically dairy that has been shown to promote tumor cell growth and inflammation. Countries that consume the most dairy and animal protein are also those with the most breast cancer. Dr. T. Colin Campbell so eloquently demonstrated in the China Study that countries consuming the most animal protein had the highest rates of cancer. Those consuming a high fiber diet were noted to have very low levels of cancer.
High cholesterol and diabetes are risks for breast cancer. High insulin levels are associated with high levels of insulin-like growth factor or IGF-1 as well as inflammatory interleukins all of which are cancer promoters. Fat cells are hormonally active which stimulate cancer cell growth. By changing to a plant based diet, these lifestyle diseases can be reversed while also decreasing the risk of cancer.
Women who exercise vigorously have a decreased risk of breast cancer and breast cancer recurrence. Walking thirty minutes a day six days a week was associated with a 50% improved survival advantage. Activity levels during adolescence are strongly associated with a decrease in premenopausal breast cancer. This is a great reason to get your child into sports early and encourage lifelong exercise. Exercise clearly reduces risk of lifestyle diseases but you have to keep it up. A study showing those who exercised 4 years prior to study enrollment had a lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer than those who did not. However, those who had exercise and then stopped lost the benefit.
We do not have to wait for the diagnosis of cancer. It is much better to be on offense and prevent than defense and try to treat cells gone wild. Don’t just wear pink and hope, but take an active part in your prevention of breast cancer as well as those around you.
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