Breast Cancer: Beat the Odds Part 2
Reducing Risks and Improving Chances
It’s never the wrong time to take action against breast cancer, so why not start cleaning up your internal “neighborhood” now? Robust science supports the protective benefit of eating better, cutting back on alcohol, reducing inflammation, and exercising more regularly.
What You Can Do
Change your diet. Luckily, how you eat can have a positive effect on how estrogen works in your body. Conventionally raised red meat and dairy, and the saturated fats they contain, raise your estrogen levels, while fiber-rich foods lower it. Victoria Maizes, MD, executive director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and professor of medicine and public health at the University of Arizona, recommends eating a plant-based diet that drastically reduces or eliminates animal protein. “There is a link between red meat and many cancers, including breast,” says Maizes. The likely culprit? Inflammation.
Those with the highest fiber consumption have estrogen levels 20 percent lower than women with the lowest fiber consumption.
Fiber-rich foods help you excrete excess estrogen by binding with it and flushing it out of your body in your bowel movements. Studies show that women who eat high fiber foods have lower circulating estrogen levels; in fact, those with the highest fiber consumption have estrogen levels 20 percent lower than women with the lowest fiber consumption. I recommend 35 to 45 grams per day of fiber, yet the average American woman gets less than 14 grams per day.
Cut back on alcohol. If your liver is busy processing alcohol, it can’t adequately metabolize estrogen and excrete the excess into your bile, where it can then move through your intestines and out of your body. Furthermore, alcohol, which is converted into acetaldehyde, a chemical akin to formaldehyde, simply adds to your toxic load. It also raises cortisol levels, so the stress-reducing benefits you think you’re getting from that glass of wine may not actually exist. Other methods of stress reduction, such as yoga and other contemplative practices, are a better choice. Here’s the bottom line: eliminate alcohol or limit it to fewer than three to six glasses a week.
An active lifestyle reduces breast cancer by 25 percent, according to Love, probably because it helps keep your weight down (excess weight is a risk factor) and helps reduce stress.
Get moving. An active lifestyle reduces breast cancer by 25 percent, according to Love, probably because it helps keep your weight down (excess weight is a risk factor) and helps reduce stress. How active is active? Brisk walking, jogging, bicycling, or some other aerobic activity for 30 minutes at least four times a week. And the more you exercise, the greater the benefit.
Keep doing yoga. Stress and cancer cells are a bad mix. When you skillfully manage stress—and reduce your perception of stress—with yoga, meditation, or contemplative practice, you improve your circadian rhythms and normalize your cortisol levels. You don’t want cortisol to be too high or too low, and yoga is a wonderful way to make sure your cortisol levels stay balanced.
Add supplements. An essential ingredient in your breast cancer prevention toolkit, vitamin D may counter estrogen growth, according to a study from the German Cancer Research Center. Supplement with at least 2000 IU per day (minimum), less in the summer, if you’re out in the sun (20 minutes of unprotected exposure). Turmeric, the Indian spice that makes curry yellow, shows great promise in cancer prevention as a powerful anti-inflammatory. Several studies suggest that people who add it to their diet (or take it as a supplement) have lower rates of breast cancer. And mice studies show curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) may slow the spread of breast cancer. If you have trouble with constipation, add fiber supplements to your daily regimen. Adding omega-3s to your cancer-fighting arsenal may reduce your risk of getting it (although the evidence is somewhat limited at this point), but plenty of studies show these essential fatty acids can help you reduce inflammation and stress hormones, such as cortisol.
Gentle Ways to Heal
Should you end up with a breast cancer diagnosis, the preventive measures outlined above will help you throughout treatment and recovery. Keeping your stress levels in check is imperative to healing. We know that yoga can do that—especially a yoga practice that has a strong meditative component. Cora Wen, a yoga teacher and pioneer in adapting yoga for breast cancer survivors, says lack of sleep and emotional anxiety can wreak havoc for women who have been diagnosed. “Since sleep is often shallow or interrupted,” she says, “the nervous system doesn’t get rest.” And once we’re sleep deprived, “many of the other systems don’t work so well either—such as immune functioning, which is critical to prevent breast cancer recurrence.” Staying positive, feeling gratitude, learning to forgive, and other psychologically resourceful traits also appear to improve outcomes.
Of course, ultimately there are no guarantees. But you can vastly improve your chances of keeping breast cancer at bay by cleaning up the bad neighborhood that allows mutant cells to proliferate and creating an environment that promotes healthy cells and allows them to thrive.
Sara is a Harvard-trained MD with an integrative gynecology practice in Oakland, CA; a yoga teacher; and the author of The Hormone Cure: Reclaim Balance, Sleep, Sex Drive and Vitality Naturally with the Gottfried Protocol (Simon & Schuster, March 2013).