Breast cancer is the primary cause of death for women between the ages of 35 and 54. Despite great strides in our medical knowledge, cancer rates have increased dramatically in the last 40 years. In 1960, one in 20 women developed breast cancer. Today, that number is one in eight. Sadly, one quarter of women who develop breast cancer will die from the disease. Recurrence rates are up to 30 percent in those past the five year mark.
Normal, healthy cells go through a series of steps to ensure life. They grow, divide and die in a carefully performed, predetermined symphony. During this highly complex process, the cell’s genetic code of DNA is duplicated and transferred to new cells. Normally this process takes place without error, but every once in a while a mistake occurs. Most mistakes are quickly repaired, but on occasion a mistake may not be detected and cells will be allowed to perform differently than usual. Normal cell conduct organizes cells into their correct location, turns growth off and on as required and ensures that cells do not crowd each other.
Cancer cells do not play by the rules. Cancer begins in normal cells that have become renegades. These abnormal cells, also called malignant cells, turn the immune system against itself, multiply unchecked, steal nutrients, re-route blood supplies away from normal body functions and lack programmed cell death (called apoptosis). Because these turncoat cells are similar to other healthy cells, often the immune system fails to detect and kill them. The cancer cells’ goal is to survive at all cost, even if they kill their host. The key to stopping breast cancer is to determine what triggers abnormal cell reproduction and put an end to it.
Early detection of breast cancer is crucial. Become familiar with the look and feel of your breasts and report any changes to your doctor. According to the National Cancer Institute, nipple tenderness, discharge or nipples turning in toward the breast should be reported. Any lump or thickness located in or near the breast or under the arm, or a change in the size or shape of the breast is cause for concern. Breasts are lumpy by nature, so do not panic if you locate a lump. Benign lumps tend to be soft, smooth, round and movable, while cancerous lumps are firmly attached within the breast and tend to be hard, with an odd shape. Talk to your doctor if the skin on your areola, nipple or breast is red, scaly or swollen, with ridges or dimpling like an orange peel.
Mammography is a method for finding lumps, but it has its limitations. For women under the age of 40, mammograms are difficult to interpret due to denser breast tissue, or benign or fibrocystic breast disease. Mammograms are also unreliable, often giving false positive and false negative readings. Mammography ranges from being uncomfortable to being downright painful for women, and exposure to the radiation with each successive test increases breast cancer risk.
Breast thermography and MRI are safe alternatives to mammography. Any suspicious lumps receive a biopsy, which involves the removal of tissue with a needle. This procedure confirms or rules out the diagnosis of cancer.
Defects in the genetic code of the cell are not the sole cause of cancer. When these defects are combined with environmental and lifestyle factors, including the use of hormones, pesticides, radiation, stress, toxic agents, viruses and nutritional deficiencies, cancer cells get the green light. Since most of these factors are controllable, we need to define the external factors that increase our risk of breast cancer.
According to Dr. Susan Love, author of Breast Book, breast cancer may be caused by a combination of genes that are mutated by cancer-causing agents known as carcinogens. Carcinogens cause uncontrolled cell growth that is strictly confined to the ductal or lobular units of the breast, and these growths are known as precancerous lesions. With additional mutations, these lesions burst out of the duct or lobule into the surrounding fat and tissue. One mutated cell can reproduce and develop into an invasive tumor with its own blood supply. These cells may also spread through the lymphatic system or bloodstream to affect other organs. When this happens, the cancer is said to have metastasized. Breast cancer can spread to the bone, for example, and the cancer there would be considered and treated as metastasized breast cancer rather than bone cancer. The only way to stop this series of events is to stop the carcinogens, and the only way achieve that is to understand what they are.
Key Risk Factors: Leading the list of risk factors for breast cancer are exposure to toxic environmental estrogens called xenoestrogens (pronounced “zeno”– estrogens) and the use of the hormone estrogen. Environmental estrogens are dangerous for several reasons: they act like estrogen in the body; they cause our own estrogen to convert to cancer-causing forms of estrogen; they increase our risk of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer; they promote infertility by suppressing progesterone; and they cause early puberty (See Ovarian Cysts, Precocious Puberty). Xenoestrogens are found in soft plastic products, plastic wrap, medical plastics used in IV bags and oxygen tubing, pesticide-laden foods (fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat), dioxins, cosmetics containing parabens, chemicals used to bleach feminine hygiene products, dry cleaning chemicals and nail polish. Dark hair dyes contain phenylenediamine, an estrogen-mimicker and known cancer-causing agent.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology in 2004 found that parabens were found in 18 of 20 breast tumors. Parabens are used extensively in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and deodorants. Women who used anti-perspirants or deodorants, who shaved frequently and who started these habits before age 16 were found, in a study published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, to be diagnosed with cancer up to 22 years earlier than those who rarely used the products.
The hormone estrogen is commonly prescribed for Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) either alone or in combination with progestins. In July 2002, the debate about the safety of estrogen plus progestins finally ended: a Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study was halted when researchers noted an increased risk of blood clots, breast cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke in participants. In fact, the study group had a 26 percent increase in the risk of invasive breast cancer. This wasn’t the first study to show a link between hormone therapy and breast cancer, but it is the one that caught the attention of the scientific community. As a result, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally listed estrogen as a carcinogenic agent. The FDA now recommends that hormone replacement therapy be used at the lowest doses and for the shortest period of time that will produce desired results.
Prolonged use of oral contraceptives is another controversial subject. Try natural fertility monitors to determine your fertility cycle and when you are at risk of becoming pregnant. As well, be aware that some anti- depressants, cholesterol-reducing drugs and anti-hypertension medications increase the risk of breast cancer. Statins, used to lower cholesterol, also deplete the body of the breast-protective nutrient coenzyme Q10 (Co-Q10). Silicone breast implants, especially those encased in polyurethane foam, cause trauma to breast tissue during implantation.
Early onset of menstruation, often the result of excess estrogen caused by xenoestrogens, is also an issue, as is late onset of menopause (See Precocious Puberty, Menopause). Being overweight or obese increases estrogen stores in fat and can also contribute to breast cancer (See Overweight and Obesity).
Poor diet also plays a starring role in the development of breast cancer and is a factor in 35 percent of cases. Diets high in hormone-containing meats, animal fats and dairy products are associated with breast cancer, as are cigarette smoking and the early or excessive consumption of alcohol. As fiber helps to pull excess estrogen from the body, diets that are low in fiber can be a factor in high levels of circulating estrogens, which promote breast disease.
PRESCRIPTION FOR HEALTHY BREASTS
|ESTROsmart||4 capsules daily||
Detoxifies cancer-causing forms of estrogen
Reduces risk of breast cancer
Important for healthy metabolism of estrogen
|IMMUNOsmart||2 capsules daily||2 capsules daily with food strengthens immune system, enhances T cells and natural killer cells|
|Borage Oil / GLA Skin Oil||1 to 2 tsp or 4 capsules daily||Researched in estrogen-recepter-positive breast cancer|
|MULTIsmart||6 capsules or 2 packets daily||Ensures adequate nutrient status|
Breast Cancer and Milk Thistle
The BC Cancer Agency has cautioned women about using the herb milk thistle when they have breast cancer. Research on milk thistle’s effect on breast cancer cells has predominantly been conducted in test tube studies. Until there is strong human research involving women with breast cancer, I feel it is prudent to avoid milk thistle if you have breast cancer.
HEALTH TIPS TO ENHANCE HEALING
- Eat organic foods, especially organic dairy products, to avoid xenoestrogens. Focus on a diet high in organic vegetables, especially those from the cruciferous family such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts, as they are high in the cancer fighter indole-3-carbinol. Reduce your intake of sugar as it suppresses the immune system. Ensure that the fats you eat are those that are rich in essential fatty acids.
- Lignans are a plant estrogen found in very high concentration in flax seeds. Researchers at the University of Toronto believe that daily consumption of the lignans in flax seeds (which you can grind and sprinkle on your cereal every day) can help to prevent and treat breast cancer. Alpha-linolenic acid from flax seed oil has also been shown to have a breast-cancer-protective effect.
- Avoid nail polishes that contain formaldehyde or toluene. Look for those that are phthalate free (pronounced thay-late). These xenoestrogens have been linked with reproductive disorders. Avoid dark hair dyes, which have been linked with cancer. Go blonde, or go natural! Safe, toxin-free products are available at your local health products store. Look for Herbatint in health food stores; it is a great natural hair dye.
- Use natural cosmetics that do not contain parabens. Find natural, toxin-free products at your health products store.
- Take ESTROsmart breast-supporting nutrients every day.
- Protect your breasts from breast traumas as they promote DNA damage. Remember the more breast X-rays you have, the more DNA damage your cells will experience.
- Avoid clothes that need to be dry-cleaned and use only unbleached sanitary products (NatraCare feminine hygiene products).
- Support new mothers’ efforts to breastfeed as long as possible, as nursing is a potent protector against breast cancer.
- Avoid hormone replacement therapy; the combination of estrogen and progestin has been found to increase the risk of invasive breast cancer. Use herbal alternatives to treat menopausal symptoms (see Menopause).
- Exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes three times per week to reduce your breast cancer risk dramatically.