Breast Cancer: Awareness or Prevention?

How to Prevent Breast Cancer

This month is Breast Cancer Awareness month. It started out in 1985 as a warm and fuzzy way to promote mammograms. Before I became a nutritionist, I worked as a marketing director for a hospital. I was tasked with getting women in for  mammograms (our CFO was adamant we pay off the pricey equipment.), so October was a busy month.   

My preference today would be a breast cancer prevention month. Experts could share the myriad of ways to prevent this disease altogether. 

Mammograms spot growths, which may or may not be cancer. According to a 2016 New England of Medicine report, more than half the abnormal mammogram findings never turn into cancer, but are nevertheless treated aggressively, as if they are. So, true a mammogram can catch a deadly growth but it can also lead you to unnecessary treatment. 

Once a growth is spotted, cancerous or benign, the patient is treated for cancer (super scary news + surgery, chemo, and/or radiation). 

I am not telling you to skip mammograms, only pointing out ways to be more proactive if indeed prevention is your goal. I left my well paying hospital post (with benefits) to educate others in how to stay out of hospitals. Let’s talk actual prevention. 

Exercise: Physical activity is well known to reduce cancer risk. Numerous studies show exercise prevents breast cancer. One study showed, women who get in 30-60 minutes of moderate activity per day enjoy a 25-30% reduction in breast cancer risk. Exercise also helps with fat loss, another way to reduce cancer risk as body fat raises estrogen levels.

Weight Control: Studies suggest obesity increases risk for many cancers, including breast cancer. Body fat increases estrogens and insulin, both of which may increase cancer risk. Exercise, cut sugar, and eat more veggies.

Vitamin D: This may be one of the single most effectives ways to slash breast cancer risk. Studies show blood levels above 60 ng/ml can prevent close to 80% of breast cancer! Neither the Susan G Komen, the American Cancer Society, nor the National Breast Cancer coalition teach or even research this. 

The ideal dose to achieve optimal vitamin D levels varies. Get tested to know your ideal dose. It is not the dose but your BLOOD level that is key. Also be sure you take vitamin K2 whenever you take vitamin D.  This also plays a role in cancer prevention, but more importantly enables vitamin D to do its job. Those who take vitamin D without K2 can wind up with calcium in the wrong place, like arteries and kidneys, and not in bone where it belongs. 

Cut the Sugar: It is well known cancer cells grow rapidly when provided their fuel of choice: sugar. A study conducted at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center demonstrated that a sugary diet (typical in America), as compared to a low sugar diet, increases breast tumor growth and metastasis in mice.  

Instead of snacking on cookies, ice cream or gummy bears, consider olives, nuts, crackers and cheese, pate, or whole milk yogurt. Instead of cold cereal or granola for breakfast, consider eggs with veggies, or oatmeal with lots of butter and nuts.

Vegetable oils: High omega 6 oils, or polyunsaturates, including safflower, sunflower, corn, soy, peanut and canola, are inflammatory and associated with oxidation and increased risk of cancers. Olive oil, on the other hand, has a protective effect. A high intake of omega 3 rich fats, from fish oils and seafood, is also associated with reduced risk of cancer. 

Instead of bottled salad dressings made with vegetable oils, consider using olive oil and vinegar and make your own. Supplement with cod liver oil and eat more cold-water fish, walnuts, flax seeds, and pastured meat and eggs.

Ask restaurant servers to leave off the canola oil-laced salad dressing and just serve olive oil and vinegar. I travel with a tiny bottle of olive oil for this reason. I love salads and they are almost universally made with a cheap “blend.” Olive oil is pricey for good reason.

Mushrooms: Fungi are well know cancer fighters and used in cancer remedies across the globe. Some of the more medicinal are shiitake, chaga, turkey tail, and Reishi. Use powdered mushrooms in broth. Sauté shiitakes or maitakes with other veggies.  Simmer a variety of mushrooms slices in soups and stews. 

Cruciferous veggies are associated with lower levels of the kind of estrogen that can promote breast cancer. A diet high in cauliflower, broccoli, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and others in this family, can reduce risk of cancer-promoting estrogens.  

Folate: If you enjoy a glass or two of wine at night, you are likely boosting your risk for breast cancer. If you take folate, you can offset the risk.   Just one glass of wine a day appears to increase breast cancer risk. A supplement, or a diet particularly rich in folate, provides protection. Leafy greens, liver and nuts are good sources, but a folate supplement insures you are getting therapeutic levels. Check your supplement; folic acid does not provide this benefit.   

Nettles: My villager neighbors in Turkey took it as fact that nettles cure cancer. One young local woman even shipped bags of fresh nettles to her sister in the states who was battling cancer.  I regularly joined my elderly villager neighbors collecting creek side stinging leaves (with gloves). My motivation was an incredibly delicious nettles soup. I searched the web for evidence of this cancer-fighting benefit 10 years ago when living in Turkey, but found nothing. More recently, I learned sodium formate, the compound responsible for the biting rash when skin is brushed with a nettle leaf, attacks cancer cells repeatedly and does not foster resistance as many chemo drugs do.  

Fall and spring are good times to check for nettles in moist, shady places. 

Many foods have chemotherapeutic potential, meaning they an induce cancer cell death, as well as boost immunity so your body does the work. Here is a list of cancer-fighting foods and spices you might consider adding to your diet:

Turmeric (fresh root and powder)

Ginger (ginger tea, ginger in stir-fries)

Garlic, raw minced

Shiitake mushroom

Maitake mushroom

Chaga mushroom

Turkey tail mushroom

Leafy greens 

Nettles (fresh in soups is best. It is delicious made into a soup.)

Broccoli family: cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale (cooked)

Onions, leeks, scallions

Spices/herbs: thyme, oregano, rosemary, marjoram

Live sauerkraut, pickles, pickled vegetables

Seaweed (a source of iodine, which is associated with reduced incidence of breast and ovarian cancers. Warning, sushi restaurants often serve seaweed salad with sugar and dyes.)

Green tea 

Soursop (you can get this fresh in tropical areas or buy as a tea or capsules) 

To reduce x-ray exposure penetrating delicate breast tissue, consider thermography.  Many claim this picks up abnormalities before growths materialize.   

Cheers to prevention.