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October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, so all across America, you may have noticed pink as the prevailing color—in grocery stores, restaurants, Internet blogs, Facebook photos, and even NFL games. It’s all part of an annual effort to raise awareness about the disease. “Race for the Cure” events alone raise millions of dollars each year toward research. Yet, despite the increased awareness and charity contributions, the rate for new breast cancer cases in the U.S. has not changed significantly in recent years, according to a government report. And, sadly, some 41,000 women die each year from this disease. Chances are that you know someone who has been affected by breast cancer: a friend, aunt, sister, mother, daughter, wife or maybe even yourself. This is why it’s important to learn and share breast cancer prevention tips.
As a former chemotherapy infusion nurse, I’ve seen firsthand the effects cancer has on individuals and families. As I daily mixed preparations of chemo drugs, I often thought about how wonderful it would be to find a cure and even prevent this disease. In fact, it was seeing the disease, day in and day out, that drove me to study nutrition and other alternative methods of cancer prevention. And so, having spent years studying and researching effective strategies for fighting cancer, the most successful approaches I’ve discovered can be found herein.
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Breast Cancer Prevention Tip #1—Exercise Regularly
If you want to cut your risk of developing breast cancer by as much as 30 percent, start exercising regularly. According to research from the University of North Carolina, women who regularly exercise have a significantly decreased risk of developing the disease. The intensity of the workout does not matter, but the quantity does. This means you don’t have to run a marathon or buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of workout equipment; you can simply walk around the block with a friend or play a game with your kids. But, you do have to be consistent. At least 30 to 60 minutes of activity per day, five days per week is recommended to achieve the best results.
Why is exercise so effective? Exercise helps reduce abdominal fat. Since estrogen is stored in fat, the larger a person is, the more circulating estrogen will be stored in the body. Losing excess weight, and particularly abdominal fat, can help lower breast cancer risk by 25 to 30 percent, which leads to tip #2…
Breast Cancer Prevention Tip #2—Eat a Healthy Diet High in Fruits and Vegetables
Aside from helping with weight loss, there are a number of naturally occurring compounds found in fruits and vegetables that have been proven by scientific research to prevent breast cancer. As you read over this list, think about which foods you can incorporate into your diet.
- Broccoli contains the phytonutrient sulforaphane; treating breast cancer stem cells with sulforaphane inhibits their growth and halts tumor progression.
- Carrots contain the antioxidant falcarinol, which delays the growth of breast and other cancerous tumors.
- Cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables contain the phytochemical Indole-3-carbinol (I3C), which influences estrogen metabolism. In one study, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley injected I3C directly into human breast cancer cells; it halted the cell cycle process, inhibiting the growth of the cancer cells and preventing cell division.
- Pomegranates contain ellagitannins. These phytochemicals inhibit aromatase, an enzyme that converts androgen to estrogen. Aromatase plays a key role in breast cancer development; therefore, consuming pomegranates inhibits the growth of hormone-dependent breast cancer.
- Raspberries contain the powerful phytonutrient ellagic acid. Specifically, ellagic acid has been found to cause cell death in cancer cells, and it reduces estrogen’s effect in the promotion of breast cancer.
Besides eating fruits and vegetables, it’s also critically important to consume organic proteins and “good” fats and to avoid processed, sugary, and carbohydrate-laden foods.
Breast Cancer Prevention Tip #3—Get Enough Sleep
The key to a good night’s sleep is determined by the amount of melatonin produced in our body. This hormone is produced by the pineal gland in the brain and is best known for its role in regulating circadian rhythm, or the sleep-wake cycle. Yet researchers also have found that decreased melatonin levels can stimulate the growth of estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer cells. In fact, women who mostly work at night and have very little exposure to sunlight have increased breast cancer rates by as much as 60 percent. Why? Exposure to light alters the total amount of melatonin produced in the body (which is a good reason to make sure your bedroom during sleep time is completely dark—no TVs, computers, cell phones or lights left on).
For women who have difficulty falling or staying asleep and for women who work nightshifts, taking 3 mg of melatonin one hour before bedtime can help adjust the body’s circadian rhythm in order to get the 7 to 8 hours of rest needed each day.
Breast Cancer Prevention Tip #4—Take Targeted Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamin D: Aside from the lack of sleep associated with working the nightshift, a lack of sunlight exposure can prevent the body from manufacturing the important vitamin D3, an essential nutrient that helps prevent breast cancer. According to one study, breast cancer patients with low vitamin D levels have a 73 percent higher risk of death than women who are vitamin D sufficient. The risk of developing breast cancer can be reduced by as much as 50 percent when vitamin D levels in the blood are above 52 nanograms per milliliter.
Most men and women find it difficult, if not impossible, to get enough safe sunlight to keep their vitamin D blood levels this high. The answer for most is to take a nutritional supplement at levels of 2,000 to 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day. It’s safe and easy and pays huge dividends.
Magnesium: In addition to vitamin D, a deficiency of magnesium has been linked to breast cancer. When you consider that magnesium plays a vital role in health, participating in more than 300 enzymatic reactions, it’s no surprise that a deficiency of this mineral can wreak havoc on the body. Magnesium is required for insulin regulation, energy production, blood pressure control, heart health, pH balance and… cancer prevention. On top of this, many pharmaceutical drugs prescribed to women cause a deficiency of this vital mineral. In particular, oral contraceptives (birth control) cause a decrease in magnesium, which is why it’s no surprise that women with a history of birth control use are at increased risk for developing breast cancer.
B Complex: Last, but certainly not least, a lack of the important B vitamins can also influence breast cancer risk. One study found that women with higher dietary intakes of vitamin B12 and folate were associated with lower breast cancer risk, particularly among postmenopausal women.
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So, how can you know if you’re getting an adequate amount of these vitamins and minerals in your food or supplements? For each nutrient, specific testing is available and can be easily performed by your doctor or an integrative physician.
Breast Cancer Prevention Tip #5—Limit X-Ray Exposure
Unnecessary exposure to x-rays can increase the risk of breast cancer development. According to a study by European cancer agencies published in the journal BMJ, x-rays, mammograms, and other types of tests involving chest radiation are particularly harmful to women who genes put them at a higher risk for the disease.
In the study, researchers followed 2,000 women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 cancer gene mutations. The participants reported their previous chest x-rays and mammograms, including the age of their first screening and the number of procedures. Researchers found women with a history of chest radiation in their 20s had a 43 percent increased relative risk of breast cancer compared to women who had no chest radiation at that age. And, any exposure before age 20 seemed to raise the risk by 62 percent. In several European naitons, including Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain, doctors already advise women with BRCA gene mutations to get MRIs or ultrasounds instead of mammograms before age 30.
The take-away message here is to always ask your doctor if a test is necessary; that is, just be sure that the x-rays you get are really the ones you need. And, check to see if safer alternatives such as ultrasounds or thermography might work as well.
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Will these five tips provide you a 100 percent guarantee of protection from breast cancer? No, but implementing them into your life can likely decrease your risk for developing the disease by 30, 40, or even as much as 70 percent. And, if the 200,000 women last year who were newly diagnosed with the disease could have known about cutting their risk factors in half, they would have likely jumped at the opportunity. Will you?
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 The University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, June 25, 2012.
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 Natural Compounds in Pomegranates May Prevent Growth of Hormone-dependent breast cancer. American Association for Cancer Research. January 5, 2010.
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 Evidence for Need for Increasing Dietary Vitamin D. Abstract 4008—AACR Conference.
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 “X-Ray risk from overexposure to radiation, danger and safety, CT scan, MRI safety” by Ray Sahelian, M.D.
 Diagnostic chest radiation before age 30 may increase breast cancer risk in BRCA1/2 mutation carriers. BMJ. September 5, 2012.
Originally published in 2012, this post is regularly updated.