Breast self-examination is a great tool for detection, but numerous studies cited by The Breast Cancer Prevention Program (Macmillan) suggest that mammograms may be more harmful than helpful for premenopausal women. I was oblivious to my many life style choices that were impacting, positively or negatively, my breast cancer risk. Unconsciously, I also gave too much weight to the fact that breast cancer is not part of my family’s medical history. They claim that “only a very small percentage of all breast cancer cases have a direct genetic link. Genetic factors obviously cannot account for the startling increases in breast cancer incidence over the past few decades.”
Though controversy surrounds much that is “new” in the realm of breast cancer prevention and there are still no guarantees, the abundance of information becoming available makes it possible for women to examine various theories and take the steps they deem appropriate, rather than following a single prescribed path. Much of what is being suggested as beneficial to breast health echoes what we know to be beneficial in preventing other illness.
Many of the usual suspects are rounded up and identified as substances to avoid for better breast health. Alcohol, caffeine, processed foods, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, food and water contaminated by pesticides or synthetic hormones, and sugar all make the list. Robin Keuneke, author of Total Breast Health, cautions that “our body recognizes simple carbohydrates like mashed potatoes and pasta just as it recognizes sugar because they lack fiber and nutrients.” She notes that Walter Willett, from the Harvard School of Public Health “recommends white bread and potatoes be moved into the ‘sweet’ category in the food pyramid because they are the same as sugar metabolically.” Simple carbohydrates should be replaced by complex carbohydrates to avoid creating a hospitable environment for the growth of cancer tumors. “Decreasing simple carbohydrates also helps women burn calories,” stated Keuneke when interviewed. As postmenopausal obesity is also linked to breast cancer, this is more than an aesthetic concern.
The Breast Cancer Prevention Program additionally identifies “The Dirty Dozen–twelve common but unpublicized risks for breast cancer.” Included are: oral contraceptives, estrogen replacement therapy, premenopausal mammography, nonhormonal prescriptive drugs, silicone gel breast implants, diets high in animal fat or chemicals, chemical exposure at home or work, alcohol, tobacco, a sedentary life style and dark hair dyes. They indicate that many of these risk factors present the greatest hazard if exposure begins early and continues over a prolonged period of time. There is some evidence to suggest that reducing the amount of time spent wearing a bra may promote better breast health. In Breast Cancer? Breast Health! author Susan Weed supports the case for bralessness. Tight-fitting bras are suspected to be more detrimental than those that do not bind.
In The Complete Book of Breast Health (Fawcett Columbine), authors Niels Lauersen, M.D., Ph.D., and Eileen Stukane cite a study done at the University of Southern California, headed by Dr. Leslie Bernstein and released in 1994 which found “that women 40 and younger who worked out…for four hours a week reduced their risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer by more than 50 percent.” A late menarche and early menopause are generally accepted as factors which reduce the amount of estrogen circulating through the body, thus lowering the risk of breast cancer. The Breast Cancer Prevention Program note that a low-fat, high-fiber diet and regular exercise is connected with later menarche, fewer ovulatory and menstrual cycles and early menopause.
Low fat may not be as important as what kind of fat and how the fat is used. According to Christiane Northrup, M.D., “We did not see the great increase in breast cancer (or heart disease, or all kinds of cancer) until hydrogenated fats were added to the diet in huge amounts, starting in the 1930’s, when the process was developed to blow hydrogenation into the fat at very high temperatures, creating artificial fats with a shelf life higher than your life’s expectancy….Avoid them at all costs. This kind of fat is a transfatty acid that increases free radical damage in your tissue, and this is the beginning of cell damage.” Keuneke points to the decline of omega-3 since the mid-1800s, with a parallel increase in cancer. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that the body cannot produce itself, “known to inhibit tissue inflammation and reduce tumors.” Flaxseed oil is the best source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, but it is an extremely delicate oil that has a limited shelf life and must be protected from heat and light. Flaxseed oil should be purchased in dark glass bottles, dated for freshness, and kept refrigerated. Cold water fish is another important source of omega-3.
Collaborating with Udo Erasmus, author of Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, Keuneke learned that heating oils not only has the potential to destroy their beneficial properties, but can create toxins. The more unstable the oil, the more detrimental it is to heat it. Flaxseed oil should never be heated. She advises against heating any oil over a high heat. Ideally, try sautéing in “water, diluted miso, chicken or vegetable broth,” then drizzle food with fresh oil before serving. Erasmus recommends choosing an oil with deep golden color, certified organic and labeled “unrefined.” Butter is Keuneke’s choice for baking, as it is the most stable fat.
Keuneke recommends selecting the best of three cultures for breast health: “utilize flax seed and oil from Northern Europe; soy foods from Japan; and extra virgin olive oil from Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean.” Dr. Bob Arnot reaches similar conclusions in his book The Breast Cancer Prevention Diet. Freshly ground flax seeds are high in lignans which are “changed by bacteria in the human intestine to compounds that are extremely protective against cancer, particularly breast cancer,” according to Julian Whitaker, M.D. in Dr. Whitaker’s Guide to Natural Healing. When asked what findings surprised her in the course of her research, Keuneke named orange peel, mushrooms, and cooking herbs as breast protective foods she was excited to have discovered. The list of foods, herbs and natural nutrients that guard against breast cancer is growing. Sea vegetables, beta carotene, vitamins C and E, folic acid, selenium, Siberian ginseng, astragalus, rosemary, turmeric, lavender, ginger, red clover flower, burdock root, dandelion root and vitex fruit provide benefits ranging from antioxidant protection to hormonal balancing. It is important to derive these benefits from whole food sources.
The most important addition to a breast cancer preventative diet may be variety, specifically, a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs. “Five a day for good health” is a phrase that has emerged only recently in America, encouraging people to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, with an emphasis on cancer prevention. The United States Department of Agriculture has changed their food pyramid recommendations to include three to five servings of vegetables and two to four servings of fruit. Variety may be assumed, but it is not specified.
Varying cooking methods is also important, “Foods high in carotenoids such as squash, pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes, and kale are more nutritious when they are lightly cooked.” When possible, combine raw fruits or vegetables with steamed vegetables and a slow-cooked dish, such as a soup, stew or sauce. Avoid cooking meats at high temperatures or heat oils during the cooking process. A study released in November of 1998, linked the consumption of burned or very well done beef and bacon to a significantly higher risk of breast cancer.
Information is only useful to the extent that it becomes a way of life. Unless you are at a crisis point, try to incorporate healthier habits gradually. Begin with changes that seem easy or appealing. Change one meal, like breakfast or lunch, to reflect the eating pattern you wish to attain. If you take your lunch to work, find a friend (or two) who wants to make similar changes and take turns bringing a lunch to share. Recipes like Robin Keuneke’s Salmon Salad may convince you that what’s healthy tastes better too!
Salmon Salad on Mesclun Greens Garnished with Grapes and Melon
Serving Size: 2
This is a savory meal, replete with crunchy vegetables and garnished with colorful fruit. Salmon contains breast protective omega-3 fish oil and plenty of healthful amino acids to keep blood sugar balanced. The complex carbohydrates in the greens, crunchy vegetables and fresh fruit are a powerful foundation for breast health–a much healthier choice over bread.
1 can (6 oz; 170 grams) of salmon
1/2 cup minced celery
1/2 cup minced Vidalia onion
3/4 cup plain yogurt
1/2 tsp. fresh lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
1/3 tsp. sea salt
2-3 cups loosely packed mesclun greens
2 cups red grapes
Open can of salmon and drain. Put the salmon in a bowl and flake it with a fork. Toss in minced celery and parsley. Add salt, yogurt and lemon juice. Rinse greens and grapes. Place dried greens on two plates. Dry grapes and set aside. Top greens with salmon salad. Garnish with grapes, melon wedges, and thin slices of lemon.