The simple truth is that there is no natural cure for breast cancer, but there are many natural approaches women can take to prevent it. The important thing to understand about lowering your risk of breast cancer is that extreme measures are unnecessary. The relationship between nutrition and breast cancer is far more complex than commonly believed.
Sunshine a Preventative for Breast Cancer?
Australian women have nearly 50 percent lower breast cancer rates than American women, and the most likely explanation is that Australian women get more sun. The skin uses sunlight to make vitamin D, which suppresses hormonal signals that make breast cancer cells grow. Despite the fact that there have been over 390 studies of the role of vitamin D in breast cancer, the medical community is not ready to recommend routine supplementation with vitamin D to prevent breast cancer. But getting 20 minutes of sun a day, without getting sunburn that could set the stage for skin cancer , seems like a sensible idea.
Dietary Fat Not a Risk Factor for All Women
The latest research suggests that dietary fat is a risk factor for the first occurrence of breast cancer only among women who have had fibrocystic breast disease. A 10-year study of over 60,000 women recently concluded that there is no difference between the “Western”dietary pattern (including red and processed meats, refined grains, fat, and sweets) or the “healthy” dietary pattern (fruit and vegetables, fish and poultry, low-fat dairy, and whole grains) in predicting breast cancer risk. Even extreme low-fat diets intended to lower the risk of recurrent breast cancer get very poor results.
Weight Reduction May Help Other Health Issues, But Not Breast Cancer
A recent study at the University of California at San Diego found that the average weight loss after a year on a rigorous high-fiber, low-fat diet was 0.04 kilograms (a little more than an ounce, and less than the weight loss in a control group of women who did not diet), and the risk of breast cancer was nil. The relationship between weight and risk of breast cancer is also complex.
An analysis of studies including over 337,000 women found that before meno pause, overweight women are less likely to develop breast cancer. A woman with a body mass index (BMI) of 31 (for example, a woman 5’4” tall weighing 181 pounds) is 50 percent less likely than a woman with a BMI of 21 (5’4”, 122 pounds) to develop breast cancer. After meno pause, overweight women are more likely to develop breast cancer. A postmenopausal woman with a BMI of 28 (5’4”, 163 pounds) has about a 25 percent increased risk of developing breast cancer.
What About Antioxidants for Breast Cancer?
Higher antioxidant levels, however, are associated with a lower risk of breast cancer. In a study of 304 women in Australia, the highest levels of the antioxidants alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lycopene, vitamin A, and vitamin E were associated with approximately a 50 percent reduction in the risk of breast cancer (when other variables were accounted for).
The study did not find that vitamin C reduced the risk of breast cancer, but vitamin C is an important cofactor for vitamin E, helping the body conserve it. The very best way to get all of these nutrients is to eat 5 to 9 servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, but there are also comprehensive antioxidant supplements for women who can't always eat their veggies and fruits.
Curcumin a Cure-cumin?
Another antioxidant, curcumin, the yellow pigment in curry powder, stops the development of breast cancer cells in at least three ways. Laboratory studies find that curcumin makes breast cancer cells less responsive to the most abundant form of estrogen and stops estrogen from activating genes that control cell growth.
Curcumin also has an effect on breast cancer cells that are not activated by estrogen. The plant chemical deactivates a hormone cancer cells need to break out of the tissue matrix that contains them and stimulates a hormone that makes them stay put. Curcumin is also a well-known activator of the p53 gene. It helps p53 deactivate defective cells at G2, a second gap or resting phase in the process of cell division just before the cell divides. Scientists at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center have found that at least in the test tube, green tea is a perfect complement for curcumin, since it activates p53 at G1, the first gap in the process of cell division.
Cabbage Family Vegetables (Crucifers) May Lower Risk in Some Women
Indole-3-carbinol, a chemical found in broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower, makes estrogen less active in breast tissue. The latest thinking is that this chemical could become a substitute for Tamoxifen, which also reduces the activity of estrogen in breast tissue but increases the risk of developing cancers that are not stimulated by estrogen.
Alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, curcumin, green tea polyphenols, indole-3-carbinol, lycopene, vitamin A, and vitamin E are all available as dietary supplements. (Women who are or who could become pregnant should strictly limit their intake of vitamin A to 5,000 IU per day or less, since a massive overdose of the vitamin in the first 3 months of pregnancy could cause birth defects.) No one knows whether taking these nutrients as supplements would also lower the risk of breast cancer, and it is possible that the risk of certain other cancers could be increased by taking antioxidants on a long-term basis—for more than 5 years—especially by women who smoke. At this time, the best preventive measure for breast cancer in women is a diet with daily servings of colorful vegetables and avoiding extreme consumption of fat.
An Important Warning for Women Who Drink Alcohol
There is an important exception to this rule for women who drink. Several studies in the United States and China have found that folic acid lowers the risk of breast cancer in women who drink more than 1–2 drinks per day, and one study has found taking a multivitamin containing folic acid lowered risk of breast cancer by 26 percent in these women. Taking folic acid supplements seems to be better for lowering breast cancer risk than consuming large amounts of folic acid in food.
Photo Credit: Otto Magnus