One in eight. That’s the odds of a woman developing breast cancer in her lifetime. In a room of 40 people, that’s five, and that’s too many!
Furthermore, the chances of getting breast cancer have increased over time. Women from affluent communities seem to be harder hit than others, but it affects women from all walks of life. There have been many ideas about why this might be so. One recent study has shown that breast cancer rates have dipped slightly. This is certainly good news, but why is it happening? One thought is that women have abandoned hormone replacement therapy since the results of the Women’s Health Initiative study. And, we do know that the most common type of breast cancer is associated with estrogen.
We can think about estrogen in terms of both treatment and prevention. But factors other than estrogen can also contribute to how our bodies protect themselves from cells running rampant, which is what breast cancer is. Sometimes this contribution involves genetic predisposition. Other times, the contribution may be because of things we are exposed to, such as carcinogens. Many communities have been avidly searching for environmental or lifestyle factors that seem to be at the root of high breast cancer rates. There does seem to be increased risk with overweight, fatty diets and alchohol intake. This may be because estrogen is actually made from our stored fat cells. Environment may also play a role.
So lets talk about diet a little bit, because it is so powerful, and it is easily within our control if we just reach out and embrace it. In a word, whole foods is the way to go. There are so many different diets, it can be hard to know what to do. But, in general, all of the reasonable diet theories have in common vegetables. When people come to me about weight loss for instance, I tell them that I have one word for them: vegetables. Most women should be eating 7 servings of vegetables and fruit combined. With the majority of that being vegetables. What kind of vegetables? Well, a combination of colors, easy on the ones with high glycemic value. In other words, easy on the ones that go to straight sugar the quickest. (like white potatoes). I’m stressing vegetables because I think we do a lot better with eating fruit than we do with eating vegetables. Remember that breast cancer has a tie in with weight and sugar and insulin. Vegetables that are particularly good for breast cancer issues are the brassicas; brocolli, cauliflower, kale and brussel sprouts. They have a lot of I3C and Ca-d Glucarate in them. They help phase 1 and phase 2 of the detoxification system that helps process estrogen, because the body sees estrogen as a toxin. Vegetables also have a lot of antioxidants. Fruit does as well. We know that excess weight and a diet high in the omega 6 fats (low in omega 3 and vegetables) promotes breast cancer. The reason it is so important to get nutrients through food is that whole natural foods are so complex and rich. We don’t really fathom all of the ways that they work and interact. This is why it is so hard to do studies on them. And, we are finding that taking a couple select nutrients, like vitamin C and E or B12 and Folate by themselves seems to sometimes backfire. It is possible that, in order to do their magic, many nutrients need to work in tandem in a fine balancing act.
One thing is for sure. Once you have breast cancer, the problem is urgent. How do you get rid of it and how do you prevent it in the future. While prevention is a great idea, it’s a little late at that point, at least for the acute problem.
Breast cancer treatments are harsh, but they are standard of care and are well studied. There are many excellent cancer centers with highly trained and effective and caring health care teams. Treatments vary in their method of stopping breast cancer. We have become much more successful at discovering breast cancer in an early phase and have more focused surgical and radiological approaches. Herceptin, for instance is a chemotherapy that uses the immune system to fight cancer selectively. Radiation therapy can now be delivered locally through a catheter into a small balloon.
It is important to support the system in every way possible during treatment and implement measures that can maximize treatment and prevent reoccurrence in the future. How can we do that?
Maximize immunity. The immune system helps protect us from a wide variety of things, from cancer to infections. Cancer therapies are very hard on the immune system so it is important to support this system on several levels. Maitake and Turkey Tail mushrooms have been shown in scientific study to help boost the immune system in breast cancer.
Support all of your systems. You are complicated. (What woman hasn’t heard that before!) Mind-Body methods such as relaxation, massage, guided imagery and music therapy can all help reduce stress and improve energy. Acupuncture and acupressure can help with nausea, pain and fatigue. Yoga can improve energy and promote a calm state of mind. Nutritional therapies can involve supportive foods but also supportive nutrients and herbs. For example, co-enzyme Q10 is a nutrient that can become depleted with adriamycin chemotherapy and supplementation with it has been shown in studies to prevent energy depletion in the heart muscle. Some antioxidants are beneficial, such as vitamins C and E. Others, such as NAC may interfere with some therapies so that it is always important to discuss supplementation with your treating physicians. And don’t forget my favorite one, diet. I don’t know about you, but I love to eat. So do our bodies. We just need to give them what they need.
It’s never too late for prevention. We think that breast cancer comes about by a complex interaction of genetic predisposition, everything we ever eat or do, and everything we are ever exposed to in our environment. While there may be parts of that we wish we had paid attention to before we developed cancer that is water under the bridge. But, it’s not too late to change. Because, nobody wants to go thru all of the pain and heartache of breast cancer and not do the best they can to prevent a recurrence.
Take a good hard look at your food sources and pesticides, your personal care and cleaning products and the chemicals in them, and, your living environment and the chemical sources that may be there. Improve things if there is room for improvement. This is something you have power over.
Rebuild. Therapy regimens can wear down body systems. For instance, treatments can be very hard on the intestinal system. And, we know that an unhealthy intestinal system can manifest as many different syndromes, from chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome to heightened allergy symptoms to autoimmune problems like some types of arthritis. A recent study showed that about 30 percent of women who had gone thru breast cancer treatment were fatigued 5-10 years later. Another subset had cognitive difficulties. There are no studies to show exactly why that is. So, it is extremely important to do everything we can to pay attention to rebuilding the entire system of health after treatment.
Give yourself permission to love yourself, and take things one step at a time. Breast Cancer patients are not warriors. They are simply putting one foot in front of the other. Have you ever tried to walk on a balance beam? That’s putting one foot in front of the other three feet off the ground! Or have you ever gotten lost on a hike, and you hiked and hiked and hiked and about 15 miles later you ended up where you wanted to be, exhausted and hungry and thank goodness, got there just before dark? That’s putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, it takes everything you have to just do that. Other times it’s much easier. Supports are there to try to make it easier. There are lots of people around to help. Let them help. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you need. And don’t be afraid to advocate for help from you health care team.
Sensible progressive medicine can help by paying attention to the entire system, and by providing natural and nutritional support during and after this difficult time, in a regimen fine tuned for you.