Every fall for the past decade or two, the pink ribbons have come out in force. Silk-screened on T-shirts; morphed into office staplers, car air fresheners, and key rings; printed on yoga mats and wine glasses; and affixed to a host of products from cosmetics to socks, they bring the urgency of breast cancer front and center—as do the countless women and men who run and walk with passionate commitment to raise funds for the cure.
Perhaps because it feels personal and more invasive, breast cancer leaves us women far more vulnerable than any other condition we face.
Heart disease may kill more women, but the specter of breast cancer clearly looms much larger in our collective psyche. Perhaps because it feels personal and more invasive, breast cancer leaves us women far more vulnerable than any other condition we face. The disease ravages our breasts, after all, the very essence of our femaleness—both physically and psychologically. Our breasts provide nurturance and sustenance for our babies. They play a vital role in our intimate relationships. And they have an intricate connection with oxytocin, the feel-good neuroendocrine messenger of love and bonding.
While not everyone agrees on—or even knows—what causes breast cancer, researchers have identified a number of risk factors over which we can exercise some amount of control. Simply identifying them and making appropriate changes are not only empowering, they could keep this dread disease at bay.
“Our thinking about cancer has shifted,” says breast expert Susan Love, MD, author of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. According to Love, we’ve gone from thinking that cancer was “one bad cell and its progeny, and that if we killed them all, the patient would live,” to understanding that, in order to grow into a destructive force, a mutated cell needs an environment within our body that eggs it on. “It’s like a kid growing up in a bad neighborhood with drive-by shootings, drugs, and gangs, who then moves to the country, goes to Boy Scouts, and joins the band,” says Love. “Chances are good he’ll turn out differently.”
Several factors conspire to create this malevolent cancer nursery, including the usual suspects like poor food choices, lack of exercise, inflammation, and heightened stress levels. Studies also show that any disruption in the body’s circadian rhythms—the natural pattern of bodily functions that are regulated by our 24-hour internal clock—can contribute to an increase in breast cancer. Another established factor? Your lifelong exposure to estrogen, whether produced within the body (endogenously) or outside (exogenously)—think prescription medications, such as the Pill and hormone replacement therapy (HRT), or any number of environmental pollutants. While some breast cancer risks are currently beyond our control—a genetic predisposition being a primary one—the following risk factors offer opportunities for positive change.
Disrupted circadian rhythms. The jet lag we experience when we travel across time zones is a temporary disruption of our biological rhythms, particularly our sleep/wake cycle, causing us to awaken at odd hours, crash in the middle of the day, and generally feel pretty awful. But even a minor disruption like this can also mess up the release of hormones, body temperature, and other bodily functions. More important, circadian rhythms affect the production and release of the stress hormone cortisol, which is produced in your adrenal glands atop your kidneys. Peak cortisol levels normally occur within a few hours of waking up (about 8 a.m.), when our bodies need jump-starting for the day ahead. From that high point, cortisol levels normally decrease throughout the day until they reach their lowest point just before you go to bed, allowing you to fall easily into restorative sleep and produce melatonin, one of the most powerful antioxidants in your body.
Fairly recent studies suggest that chronic circadian disruption can adversely affect our health and even con-tribute to cancer risk. We know, for instance, that nurses who work the night shift—and throw off the delicate balance of their circadian rhythms with artificial light at night—are at greater risk of breast cancer. In fact, the International Agency on Research in Cancer has classified shift work that involves circadian disruptions as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Excess estrogen. Produced in large quantities beginning at puberty, estrogen grows your breasts, widens your hips, and kick-starts your period. It’s the hormone that makes us women, but ironically, too much of it can also make us sick. Women who start their periods early, do not get pregnant (which causes estrogen levels to drop), and enter menopause late in life, all of which increase their exposure to estrogen, face a higher risk of breast cancer. While you can’t easily regulate how much estrogen your body produces, you can limit your exposure to xenoestrogens. These environmental chemicals mimic and interfere with the action of natural estrogen in the body, usually with serious consequences, such as early puberty and an increase in breast cancer risk. Of course, it’s a bit of a minefield out there, with more than 700 of these synthetic chemicals found in everything from personal products like toothpaste, deodorant, cosmetics, and sunscreen, to food preservatives (including the lining of cans), and certain types of plastic, particularly bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. You can avoid many of them by reading labels after checking the lists at the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org), the Breast Cancer Fund (breastcancerfund.org), and The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (safecosmetics.org).
Affluence and stress. To some degree, breast cancer is a disease of the well-off. Women in North America and Western Europe have four times the risk of a diagnosis than their counterparts in Third World countries. While having money hardly causes cancer, women in wealthy countries encounter far more environmental chemicals, eat more red meat and other inflammatory foods, and are more likely to lead lives that disrupt their circadian rhythms. They also face far more stress, another breast cancer risk factor. Over-scheduling and overwork, both at the office and at home, can create a chronic fight-or-flight response that floods the body with stress hormones, particularly cortisol, and increases inflammation in the body. As a result, women experience everything from fatigue, sleep deprivation, and anxiety, to sugar and wine cravings, in a vicious cycle that puts them at ever greater risk of breast cancer.
Inflammation. As researchers delve more deeply into the potential causes of cancer, they’ve discovered that chronic system-wide inflammation plays a critical role in creating an environment that encourages Dr. Love’s mutated cell to turn malignant. According to Love, you can reduce inflammation with “exercise, weight loss, and stress reduction either through yoga, meditation, or social support”; and by changing the environment, you may be able to keep mutated or future cancer cells dormant. Robert Newman, PhD, professor emeritus at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, agrees. “Addressing inflammation is an important initial step in slowing the proliferation of all types of breast cancer,” he says, as well as preventing its occurrence in the first place.
Do You Have Too Much Estrogen?
Excess estrogen is a risk factor for breast cancer. Here are signs that your estrogen may be too high relative to your progesterone. If you have three or more of the following symptoms, consult your doctor to test your levels.
Weight gain resistant to the usual fixes
Abnormal pap smear
Mood swings, depression, anxiety, or general irritability
Heavy bleeding, irregular or painful periods, or endometriosis
Red flush on cheeks and nose