It’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and according to cancer.org, breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, about 12% of women will develop “invasive” breast cancer at some point in their lives, and over 200,000 cases will be diagnosed this year. It seems likely then, that we’ll all know someone, at some point, who’s been diagnosed with it. While again according to cancer.org, death rates have been declining since 1989, there’s still about a 3% death rate.
Marisa Weiss, MD, founder of Breastcancer.org says, “It’s time to think beyond detecting and treating breast cancer and put a greater emphasis on preventing it in the first place.” And while a genetic predisposition to the disease is significant, the biggest known risk factor for postmenopausal breast cancer is being overweight. “Every 11 pounds you gain as an adult increases your risk by 3%-5%.”
Is there a way to protect yourself irregardless of what you weigh?
The answer is Yes.
- Exercise—the standard prescription of 30 minutes of aerobic activity a day helps fend off cancer even if you can’t drop pounds.
- Follow a healthy eating plan: eat lots of fruits, vegetables, grains, and monounsaturated & polyunsaturated fats (nutrients work better in combination than solo); minimize saturated fats; and eliminate trans fats. “
Here are some specific ingredients for your healthy breast diet:
Healthy Breast Diet
Oleic Acid – You know about heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but did you know you also need omega-9s? According to a recent review in the journal “Clinical and Translational Oncology,” an omega-9 (called oleic acid) helps kill cancer cells and enhances the effect of the breast-cancer drug Herceptin when taken by women with the disease. You can find omega-9’s in almonds, avocados, and olive oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is best because the first press produces the most phytochemicals, such as polyphenols, which may inhibit the growth of free radicals. All you need is a small amount (one fifth of an avocado, 1 ounce of almonds, 1 tablespoon of olive oil) every day.
Bonus benefits: Preliminary research suggests that oleic acid, along with the monounsaturated fats found in the same foods, may help decrease belly fat, which would reduce your risk of insulin resistance and heart disease.
Lignans – These phytochemicals, found in plant foods, may shift production of estrogen to less biologically active forms and reduce various cancer-related growths. They can be found in beans, oats, barley and flaxseed. Flaxseed needs to be ground in order to release its lignans. Since it goes rancid quickly, buy ground flaxseed in small quantities and refrigerate it. Whole soy products, such as tofu and soy milk, also contain lignans. Some fruits and vegetables contain lignans, but eating three cups per week of oats, barley or beans is one approach to getting in your healthy eating diet.
Bonus benefits: Lignans also act as antioxidants in the bloodstream, which could help prevent heart disease. Oats, barley and beans contain beta-glucan, a fiber that binds with cholesterol and whisks it out of your system.
Flavonoids – These antioxidants not only have anti-inflammatory properties but also help protect you from cancer-causing agents. “Flavonoids repel free radicals, preventing them from getting through the cell wall and doing damage.” They can be found in green tea, wine (red has the most flavonoids, but white has some, too), grapes, and chocolate. One serving of some sort of flavonoid each day is all that’s necessary. But if you choose wine, don’t go overboard. “One drink is OK; more is not.” A study reported last year in the “Journal of the National Cancer Institute” found that, for women, each additional daily drink significantly increases the risk of breast and other cancers. Limit yourself to 5 ounces of wine daily.
Bonus benefits: Flavonoids boost heart health, making arteries more flexible and reducing plaque formation.
Vitamin A – A 2008 study that compared newly diagnosed breast-cancer patients with healthy women concluded that running short on this vitamin doubles the risk of developing breast cancer. The theory: Vitamin A (along with other antioxidants) can help stem the damage caused by free radicals in the body. It can be found in very dark green vegetables like broccoli, spinach and bok choy, and deep-orange fruits or vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, cantaloupes, and mangoes. Despite their color, oranges don’t belong in this group. It’s recommend women take 700-900 mcg daily. You’ll get this amount if you eat ½ cup each day of one of the aforementioned foods, however, if the spinach is raw, up your serving to ¾ of a cup. Since this fat-soluble vitamin is stored in the liver, it’s possible to get a toxic overdose over time, so nutritionists recommend getting your A from food rather than pills.
Bonus benefits: Vitamin A is crucial for maintaining your immune system.
Folate – This B vitamin helps keep DNA healthy and is needed for cell growth. A large Swedish study published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” found that women with the highest folate levels had a 44% lower risk of breast cancer than those with the lowest. Folate is particularly protective in women who drink alcohol. But while it’s impossible to overdose on the folate found naturally in foods, getting too much of its cousin, folic acid (the form of folate that’s added to multivitamins and fortified foods), can actually cause cancer cells to grow. Check labels and aim for 400 mcg a day; levels over 1,000 mcg are considered dangerous. It can be found in dark green leafy vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, and citrus fruits.
Bonus benefits: Folate plays a key role in the formation of red blood cells.
Lycopene – It has been shown to inhibit the growth of breast-cancer cells. It can be found in watermelons, apricots, guavas, papayas and tomatoes. Cooked and canned tomatoes and tomato sauce contain even more lycopene than the fresh ones do. To make this fat-soluble pigment more available to your body, drizzle tomatoes with olive oil and aim for 2 servings weekly.
Bonus benefits: Lycopene helps prevent lung and stomach cancer as well.
Sulforaphane – This compound inhibits the growth and spread of human breast-cancer cells. It can be found in brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli (especially the sprouts), kale, and other veggies that contain sulfur compounds, which give off a telltale odor when cooked. Try to eat one of these veggies every day.
Bonus benefits: Sulforaphane is also critical in fighting other cancers, especially lung and prostate.
Vitamin D – Women with the highest levels of vitamin D suffer from breast cancer 50% less often than those with the lowest. A national survey found that 53% of American women are D deficient. It can be found in fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), eggs and fortified dairy products. The official suggestion is 200 IU a day, but the latest thinking calls for 800 IU. Since it’s hard to get enough D from food (a cup of fortified skim milk contains only 115 IU), you might need a supplement. But before you start popping pills, get a blood test to determine if your vitamin D blood levels are low, then consult with your doctor about proper dosage.
Bonus benefits: Some data suggest that people with high levels of vitamin D have lower rates of all cancers and a lower risk of premature death.
A healthy breast diet is possible. It starts with prevention and breast cancer awareness information strongly suggests a direct tie between an unhealthy diet and risk of cancer. The steps above will start you on a healthy eating plan and, consequently, a healthy breast diet.