How important is your lifestyle in preventing breast cancer? More than you might think.
Researchers are increasingly finding links between a woman’s diet, weight and level of physical activity and how likely she is to get breast cancer.
Although there are many components that determine the risk for breast cancer, such as genetics, age and family history, the way a woman lives can play a big role.
Researchers know that a woman’s weight plays a role in breast cancer risk, but the relationship between weight and risk is not so simple. More research needs to be done to fully explain why weight matters.
What we do know is that women who are overweight when they reach menopause are more likely to get breast cancer. This is especially true for women who gain a lot of weight as adults and stay overweight as they enter menopause.
The reason is linked to estrogen and insulin levels in the body, both of which are produced in higher amounts when the body is overweight. And high levels of estrogen and insulin can increase breast cancer risk.
In menopause, a woman’s estrogen levels should drop, since the ovaries stop producing this hormone. But fat cells also produce some estrogen. The more fat tissue there is, the more estrogen that is produced, and this keeps hormone levels higher than they should be.
There is a direct link between how much alcohol (beer, wine or hard liquor) a woman drinks and how likely she is to get breast cancer. The reason is that alcohol can increase estrogen. Excessive drinking can also damage the DNA in cells, which can lead some cells to become cancerous.
Drinking even one drink per day appears to pose a risk. Consuming two or three drinks per day increases a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer by as much as 20 per cent. For each drink beyond that, the risk goes up incrementally.
Many studies show that exercising regularly can reduce breast cancer. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, physical exercise can help women lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. Another reason is that exercise boosts the immune system, and this can help the body protect itself against cancer cells. Some research also shows that exercise can reduce the estrogen levels in the body, which, in turn, decreases the risk of breast cancer.
Flaxseed powder can reduce tumor growth in patients with breast cancer. A study showed that 25 g of ground flaxseed per day can significantly reduce breast cancer cell proliferation and increase apoptosis in postmenopausal patients. Flaxseeds contain lignans which antagonize estrogen metabolism and action. Another study followed women for up to 10 years and found a 71% reduced risk of breast cancer mortality among postmenopausal women who had breast cancer. Those in the highest versus lowest quartile of lignan intakes had a statistically significantly reduced risk of breast cancer mortality.
Fish with high amounts of omega-3 fats, or omega-3 fish oil supplements can also lower the risk of breast cancer. Choose fish such as salmon or sardines.
Avoid red meat such as beef, as it increases your risk of breast cancer. This can be because of the hormones used for growth stimulation in cattle.
Cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, cabbage, and bok choy) contain indole-3-carbinol, which might help prevent breast cancer.
Green tea, about 5 cups per day, can help to lower the risk of breast cancer, partly because of its antiestrogenic properties.
Melatonin is an interesting natural compound that can help prevent breast cancer. Be sure to avoid light exposure before at night to optimize your levels of this hormone. Light at night lowers production of melatonin, and renders breast cancer resistant to tamoxifen. Women with breast cancer have lower levels of melatonin than those without the disease. You need total darkness at night to have the proper amount of melatonin. Supplements might be useful in some patients and its use should be supervised by your health care provider.
Breast health and a healthy lifestyle go hand-in-hand. Experts continue to study the risk factors for breast cancer and there are still unanswered questions. It is clear, though, that the healthier a woman’s body is, the better chance she has to steer clear of this dangerous disease.