There’s much more to breast cancer awareness than a little pink ribbon: we can empower ourselves by knowing what breast cancer is and how our choices might affect our chances of developing it.
Breast cancer is one of many hormone-sensitive cancers, meaning it is affected by, and is primarily fed by, hormones. What does that mean? A hormone is a chemical created by the body (or it can also be made artificially in a lab) to cause a specific effect, and there are two main female hormones: estrogen and progesterone. Females also produce a small amount of testosterone for libido, but that’s primarily a male hormone. This article is going to focus on the two main female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, and specifically on their roles in breast cancer.
Estrogen, Progesterone, & Cancer
Of the two, estrogen is usually the predominant hormone in women, except during pregnancy. Then, progesterone, aka the pregnancy hormone (pro-“gest” as in “gestation” is a helpful way to remember it) takes over, and estrogen drops. This is why having two or more pregnancies (with breastfeeding from both breasts) before age 35 is associated with decreased breast cancer risk — because more time for the body to be progesterone-dominant means less time for the body to be estrogen-dominant. Why does that matter? Because estrogen is a growth hormone. Though important to the body, it can also be used by breast cancer cells to fuel their growth too.
Therefore, one of the smartest strategies to reduce breast cancer risk is to maintain normal levels of estrogen — just enough so that the body has what it needs, without creating excess that can be used by cancer cells. And this approach applies to most types of cancer, because breast cancer is not the only cancer that will feed on estrogen; 70-80% of cancers will feed on this growth hormone if it’s available. So, it’s important to take steps that ensure excess estrogen is not available.
Normal Elimination of Estrogen from the Body
One way to decrease the excess estrogen in the body is through bowel movements every day. The body binds excess estrogen to fiber in the digestive tract for elimination, so this is another reason to eat a diet high in fiber: to give the body the raw materials it needs to eliminate estrogen properly. Unfortunately, fiber is lacking in the standard American diet, which is heavy on meat and dairy and other highly processed packaged and fast foods that contain no fiber. Not only do these foods cause constipation, but dairy foods especially introduce an outside source of estrogen to the body, which increases cancer risk. So if you have been eating a standard American diet, it’s strongly recommended that you phase out these foods and shift to a high fiber, plant-based diet.
Fiber comes from whole or minimally processed plant foods, and the highest fiber foods are beans (black beans, chickpeas, peas), whole grains (oats, quinoa, 100% whole wheat), and fruits and vegetables. Aim to increase fiber intake by 5g (approx one serving) per week until bowel movements are regular and unhealthy foods have been replaced with healthy foods.
Normal Body Weight
Here we see another example of the beauty of holistic health, as high-fiber plant foods are also the best foods for promoting a healthy body weight, which decreases breast cancer risk. Obesity, on the other hand, increases risk for breast cancer because estrogen is also made in fat cells (as well as in the ovaries), so more body fat means more estrogen production. Obesity is also associated with higher levels of insulin, which is another growth hormone that cancer feeds on. So everyone who is serious about preventing cancer must also make it a priority to maintain a healthy body weight. This includes a healthy diet as well as daily exercise, not smoking, and not consuming more than four alcoholic drinks per week. Especially avoid craft beers that contain many hops — hops are a phytoestrogen that has a negative effect on the body, unlike soy, which will be described later on.
Environmental Estrogens (Xenoestrogens)
By living a healthy lifestyle, we can reduce risk of cancer by about 40%, which is significant. However, we can’t make definitive prevention guidelines because there are some risk factors that are uncontrollable, such as xenoestrogens. These are lab-made chemicals that mimic the effects of estrogen if they get inside the body, which is easy to do since they are everywhere: not only in virtually every consumer product, but also in public water supplies and environmental contamination. It’s estimated that everyone in the United States has the chemical PFAS, also known as Scotchgard, in their blood.
Xenoestrogens take a long time to remove from the body, and evidence is showing they can even be passed on to next generations. Though they are difficult to avoid, there are some steps you can take to help reduce your exposure, such as using a water filter in your home, buying eco-friendly products or making your own, and not purchasing unnecessary consumer items.
A mammogram is not ‘early detection’ — by the time a tumor shows up on a mammogram, it’s already been in development for about eight years. This should drive home the fact that cancer is not something that just randomly happens overnight; cancer cells are always present in the body, but it’s the choices that each of us makes every day that add up over the long term and determine what the outcome will be. We can take appropriate action years before a few cells would have the opportunity to form into a threatening tumor.
Further, mammograms are a form of radiation exposure that can actually increase cancer risk. For detection, ask for thermography instead. Still, the ultimate peace of mind should come from active steps toward prevention.
Foods that Decrease Risk of Breast Cancer
In addition to the steps above, another strong action for reducing breast cancer risk is to eat foods from the broccoli (Brassica) family — that includes broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage/sauerkraut, radishes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli rabe, and broccoli sprouts. Why? A phytochemical in broccoli called ITC (isothyocinate) was found to kill breast cancer cells in vitro — and in a human study, it was found that just one cup per day was enough to get ITC into breast tissue.
One easy way to get a cup of Brassicas per day is to buy a frozen bag and add a cup to your meals, whether in smoothies, sauces, soups, stir-frys or side dishes.
Avoiding dairy foods and replacing them with soy is another strong risk prevention strategy. Dairy contains estrogen and IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) which promotes all stages of growth — great for growing young cows, but not needed and even harmful in the human body, especially after adolescence.
Another reason for avoiding dairy: a fascinating study dripped blood from three different types of people onto cancer cells: The first group was couch potatoes — their blood decreased cancer growth by 10%. The second group was people who exercised — their blood decreased cancer growth by 30-40%. The final group was vegans — their blood decreased cancer growth by 80-90%. Not only were they taking in less IGF-1 by not consuming dairy, their bodies were also better at modulating their own intrinsic IGF-1, which resulted in an almost total decrease in cancer growth. (Why did blood decrease cancer growth at all? Because we have immune systems.)
Replacing dairy with organic, whole soy can provide even further benefits, in several ways:
- Soy turns on the “Braca” genes (Brc1, Brc2) that cancer turns off. These genes are DNA fixers — they correct errors in mitosis (cell division), which is basically what cancer is.
- Soy decreases risk of breast cancer by modulating beta estrogen receptors, which are located in breasts in high amounts, decreasing estrogen response.
- In one study, soy and Tamoxifen (the main drug used to treat breast cancer) combined were shown to have increased benefits in breast cancer patients than using Tamoxifen alone.
- Soy also increases bone mass and reduces occurrence of hot flashes during menopause.
There is a reason why Asian cultures that emphasize whole foods including soy have longer life expectancy and lower disease rates than Western cultures, and we can take a page from their book. Consider using organic soy milk or adding organic tempeh to your stir-fry or salad. Highly processed vegan fake-meat and dairy products that use isolated soy components are not recommended, as they can be detrimental to health.
We don’t have to live in fear of breast cancer or wait for “them” to find a cure — we can shape our lives around the outcome we want to see now. In summary, to minimize breast cancer risk and maximize quality of life:
- Eat a high-fiber, plant-based diet
- Eliminate meat, dairy, and highly processed foods from your diet
- Maintain a healthy body weight with diet and daily exercise
- Eat lots of broccoli family foods and organic whole soy
- Avoid plastics and mass market consumer items when possible
- Avoid smoking and excess alcohol
Taken altogether or one at a time, these are steps toward a significantly better outcome, if we so choose.