Angelina Jolie, in her op-ed column in The New York Times, disclosed that she had a prophylactic double mastectomy. Jolie is the carrier of the BRCA1 gene, which substantially increases a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer. She lost her mother to breast cancer, and didn't want to subject her children to the same experience. She hits a nerve when she says that cancer is a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness.
Jolie, because she's positive for the BRCA1 gene and has a significant positive family history for breast cancer, chose to mitigate her high risk of developing breast cancer by having a preventative double mastectomy. Though always a complex decision medically and emotionally, she's past her childbearing and breastfeeding years, and the quality of life given by peace of mind that you’ll more than likely be there for your kids is an argument winner for many women over keeping their breasts.
So how do the rest of us prevent breast cancer? Clearly a double mastectomy is not indicated for all of us with breasts — it's major surgery with attendant risks and most of us will never develop breast cancer and do not carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes that increase breast cancer risk.
This 8-Step Breast Cancer Prevention Action Plan is health promoting in general, reducing your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer as well. These practices are your daily health affirmation so that breast cancer prevention is just a natural part of a healthy way of life!
1. Eat only high-quality, natural foods, and include olive oil and dark leafy greens every day.
Processed, fast food and nutrient-deficient diets have co-arisen with breast cancer rates. Is there a correlation? Probably. Is there any harm in eating a healthy diet? Nope. And we do know that diets rich in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and good-quality fats, particularly olive oil, can help to reduce damage to your genes and protect against breast cancer.
A number of large studies have looked at the role of fats in the diet. Though the Nurses’ Health Study did not demonstrate an increased risk of breast cancer in women consuming animal fat, polyunsaturated fat, or saturated fat, and even suggested an increased risk of breast cancer from high intake of fish oil in the diet, many other large studies have shown a breast cancer protective effect from olive oil and fish oil. The Journal of the National Cancer Institute (1995) demonstrated a 25% lower risk of breast cancer in Greek women who consumed olive oil regularly. Two other European studies also suggested a protective effect of olive oil. One of these studies also showed an increased risk of breast cancer in women who consumed saturated fat. A three-year survey of 61,471 Swedish women reported a 45% reduction in breast cancer risk among women who regularly use canola oil and olive oil. I recommend two tablespoons of olive oil daily.
2. Don’t drink alcohol — or at least drink less.
While a few glasses of red wine per week may have cardio protective actions, we do know that more than seven glasses of alcohol per week modestly increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer, and more recent research suggests that even just a few glasses may do so. Therefore, I encourage women to avoid alcohol except on rare occasions, certainly keep it to no more than two four-ounce glasses of wine per week. I get it, not drinking may be less than fun; breast cancer is even less fun. The studies are clear: the more you drink, the higher your risk of breast cancer, with two drinks per day increasing risk by as much as 70%.
We do our best to eat well, but specific vitamins and minerals, taken in amounts beyond what we get in our food, may have an additional protective role against breast cancer, mostly through supporting our body’s natural ability to detoxify and prevent damage to our genes. Supplements that may support breast cancer prevention include:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A (retinal and carotenes)
- Indole-3-carbinol (I3C) found in that Brassicacae vegetable family, and available in supplement form as DIM (diindolylmethane)
- Active folate
4. Avoid harmful environmental exposures — including unnecessary hormones.
The data is unequivocal and just keeps pouring in: many of the 100,000-plus environmental chemicals that have been introduced into our ecosystems cause cancer, and our breast tissue is especially at risk because many toxins preferentially affect them. Even low exposures of BPA, for example, a common chemical in plastics, can increase our risk of breast cancer because it has estrogen-mimicking biological activity.
We must reduce as many of our toxic exposure risks as possible. I know this can be overwhelming, but our health depends on it. Since we vertically transmit chemicals to our children through pregnancy and breastfeeding, so does the health of subsequent generations. Please visit the Environmental Working Group website for information and accessible, helpful guidance in how to transform your life from toxic to green.
5. Maintain healthy blood sugar balance and healthy weight.
Aside from sugar causing numerous other health problems, eating it leads to insulin spikes. Insulin leads to storage of body fat, and body fat is one of the sites of estrogen production in the body. Excess estrogen is a problem for women predisposed to estrogen receptor positive breast cancers. See my blog, Balance Your Blood Sugar with 4 Easy Habits.
6. Nurture your natural detox systems.
When I say "detox," I'm referring to the body’s natural mechanisms for breaking down and eliminating a whole range of chemicals that come from our food, our hormones, our metabolic processes and environmental exposures. Our bodies are beautifully designed to make sure that we break down, package, and eliminate chemicals and chemical byproducts that can cause us harm were they to linger in our bodies.
Most of our detox happens in our liver, though there are multiple sites where these processes can occur. Toxins in our food and environment can overburden our intrinsic detox systems and damage our cells. Amino acids from high-quality proteins, B vitamins, and antioxidants such as Vitamin C and E help to break down these chemicals, while fiber from vegetables and flax seeds help bind and excrete them properly through our stool. Also, healthy gut flora are essential for the proper detoxification and excretion of estrogen from the intestines, so add a probiotic to your daily routine.
7. Stress less, sleep better.
Stress and lack of sleep both lead to weight gain, blood sugar dysregulation, and increased estrogen production. Poor sleep and stress impair immunity function and detoxification, and may keep us from vitality-promoting lifestyle habits! Try to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep most nights, and build a yoga, meditation or relaxation practice into your life. It can make a world of difference in your health and outlook.
Exercise helps to keep your insulin and blood sugar levels in better control, keeps your weight down, gets rid of stress hormones, and improves sleep — so it basically enhances almost every facet of your 8-Step Breast Cancer Prevention Plan!
Bonus tip: Breastfeed!
I know this recommendation might not relate to you — you might be well before or way after your childbearing years, but I wanted to include it for any of you who might eventually become pregnant, who are pregnant and deciding whether to breastfeed, or are close to being a grandmother and want to share this news with your daughters.
Several studies have shown that breastfeeding may reduce breast cancer risk, though other studies have shown mixed results. Importantly, one large study found up to a 59% reduction in risk in breast cancer in premenopausal women who had breastfed for any length of time, even though all of these women had a first-degree relative (mother, sister) with breast cancer. This rate compares favorably with hormonal treatments such as tamoxifen given as a preventive measure to women at high risk for breast cancer.
Bringing It Home
I know breast cancer is incredibly scary to consider. You may have already had this dreaded disease and will have wisdom to share with us in the comments section below. All of the recommendations above can be part of a lifestyle to prevent recurrence as well. While we can't completely control what happens to us, we can take substantial control of our health through our diet and lifestyle. This is a powerful concept, and one I hope you'll take to heart. I've seen it make a difference in the health of thousands of women, and I hope it will for you, too.
I'd love to hear from you in the comments below, and please share this information with the women you love.
Aviva Romm, M.D. is both a midwife and an Internal Medicine and Board Certified Family Physician with specialties in Integrative Gynecology, Obstetric and Pediatrics, with a focus on women’s endocrinology. She’s also a world renown herbalist, and author of the textbook, Botanical Medicines for Women’s Health, as well as 7 other books, including The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution. A practitioner, teacher, activist and advocate of both environmental health and women’s reproductive rights and health, she has been bridging the best of traditional medicine, total health ecology, and good science for over three decades. She practices medicine in both NY and MA, and lives in the Berkshires of Western MA.