You probably know the odds—one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life. What you may not realize: In spite of all the focus on genetic testing and BRCA genes, most cases of breast cancer are not genetic. There’s a lot of emphasis on family history when it comes to all forms of cancer, but 87% of women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a single first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) with breast cancer. The older you are, the more likely it is that breast cancer is caused by things you eat or do, not your genes. This means there’s a lot that’s within your control! An ever-growing body of research has shown what the myths are and what matters…
The following have zero to do with breast cancer…
Bras: Myths abound about underwires, cup size and how old you were when you started wearing a bra, but there is no research to support any increase in breast cancer risk due to bra usage.
Antiperspirant: Multiple studies have failed to find any conclusive links between the aluminum chlorohydrate in antiperspirants and breast cancer.
Hair relaxers: No association has been found between breast cancer and how often relaxers or straighteners are used, the number of burns experienced or the type of relaxer. Still it’s always a good idea to choose products without parabens and phthalates, which have been linked to cancer.
Mobile phones and power lines: While much debate surrounds mobile phones and brain health, they do not emit the right type of energy—or a high enough amount—to damage breast cell DNA. The same goes for living near power lines. Multiple studies have debunked the idea that the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by high-voltage power lines increase breast cancer risk.
Breast surgery: If you have had breast-reduction surgery, numerous studies support the finding that your risk for breast cancer actually decreases. On the flip side, research shows that most implants—no matter what type, the positioning or how long you’ve had them—do not cause breast cancer. They do make cancer harder to detect, however, so you should have more rigorous screening—such as an ultrasound along with your mammogram. Note: Some new concerns have been raised about textured implants possibly causing a form of lymphoma, but not breast cancer. Additional research is ongoing.
Coffee: No link between coffee consumption and breast cancer has ever been found, and there even is some evidence that drinking coffee may have a protective effect. Note: Artificial sweeteners have not been linked to breast cancer, but they have been associated with obesity and insulin-resistance (so have no more than two servings a day).
Here’s What Does Matter
The good news is that there are many positive steps you can take to lower your risk for breast cancer. Not surprisingly, they involve diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices, such as…
• Watching your weight: Being overweight or obese is the single most preventable cause of breast cancer worldwide. Having more fat tissue raises your estrogen and insulin levels. Extra weight increases your risk by anywhere from 50% to 250%. The research is very clear that the risk for breast cancer is much higher if you are overweight post-menopause, although the exact reason for that is not known.
• Lowering the amount of alcohol you drink: Alcohol is the other big enemy of healthy breast tissue. All types of alcohol increase estrogen levels, and estrogen is a potent fuel for cancer cells. One drink a day increases your breast cancer risk by 10%…two drinks, by 30%…three drinks, by 40%—you can see where this is going. However, one drink a day does ostensibly provide heart-health benefits. To keep the heart-health benefits and minimize breast cancer risk, stick to no more than one drink a day (or seven over a week) and make it red wine with its breast-friendly resveratrol and anti-estrogen effect.
• Colorizing your plate: Aim for a meal that’s 70% fresh fruits, vegetables and leafy greens. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with phytonutrients, plus anticancer and anti-inflammatory properties that directly target cell mutations and put the brakes on cancer development. They prevent and repair DNA damage, destroy harmful cells, inhibit blood supply to tumors and protect against cell damage from environmental toxins.
• Going meatless more often: Animal protein, including fish, can increase your risk for breast cancer. Think of it as a side dish, not the main star of your plate. Even egg consumption should be limited to two a week. In one large-scale UK study, a high intake of meat (red meat, white meat, processed meat, poultry) showed increases in breast cancer risk when compared with vegetarians. Red meat was particularly flagged—the study found a 41% increased risk. But even poultry increased participants’ risk by 22%. Yes, fish contains omega-3s that generally are beneficial, but fish—like meat and poultry—causes the body to produce insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which has the primary job of promoting cell growth. That’s great when you are a child. Once you’re an adult, you need some IGF-1 to repair cells after exercise, for example, but an excess is going to send cell production into
overdrive, including production of cancer cells. (See below for surprising alternative sources of protein.)
To make matters worse, conventional meat in the US and Canada contains a growth hormone (zeranol) that has been banned in Europe for decades because of its link to early puberty, which increases breast cancer risk. In fact, zeranol has been shown in labs to turn healthy breast cells to cancer in only 21 days.
Note: Even if you choose organic or grass-fed meat, be careful how you prepare it. When meats are well-done or char-grilled, cancer-causing compounds can form on the surface. Women who consistently eat well-done hamburgers, bacon and steak have a 362% higher risk for breast cancer than women who consume meat cooked rare or medium.
• Moving your body more: Women who get just three to four hours a week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity have 30% to 40% lower risk for breast cancer than women who are inactive. Work out more than four hours a week, and you’ll enjoy a 58% decrease in risk. Activity reduces estrogen levels, improves insulin sensitivity and maintains weight loss.
• Finding alternatives to hormone replacement therapy: Decades of evidence show that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can increase risk for breast cancer. According to the Women’s Health Initiative, there are 25% more breast cancers in HRT users than nonusers. To relieve the symptoms of menopause, try topical vaginal estrogen and laser treatments for vaginal dryness. For hot flashes, try herbal remedies such as black cohosh, evening primrose oil and soy. Acupuncture, biofeedback and yoga also may be beneficial. If you do decide to try HRT or bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT), take the lowest possible dose for the shortest amount of time necessary.
• Avoiding environmental toxins: Minimizing your exposure to endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) such as BPA, phthalates and parabens, which lurk in many household products, can help lessen your breast cancer risk. Choose organic and locally grown foods when possible, filter all water sources, fill your home with houseplants that act as potted air purifiers and pass on personal-care products that list EDCs on the label.
• Finding time for daily stress relief: Acute or chronic stress impairs the immune system, which gives diseases the opportunity to flourish, so take 20 minutes a day to do something that centers you such as yoga or meditation.
Meatless Monday All Week Long
Trying to go meatless more often, but worried about getting enough protein? You know to eat beans and nuts, but here are five lesser known foods that are full of protein…
• ⅓ cup seitan* = 21 grams protein (avoid if you have celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant)
• 1 cup green peas = 8 grams protein
• 1 cup cooked wild rice = 6.6 grams protein
• ¼ cup dry steel-cut oats = 5 grams protein
• ½ cup cooked of either spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts, organic corn, avocado = 2 grams protein
*Seitan is a popular vegetarian meat substitute made from wheat that has the look and texture of meat when cooked.