If genes don't matter, what does?
Dorothy Reece knows how to beat breast cancer. Reece, who now lives in Victoria, Canada, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1975, when she was 49 years old and going through an emotionally draining divorce.
Dorothy Reece knows how to beat breast cancer. Reece, who now lives in Victoria, Canada, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1975, when she was 49 years old and going through an emotionally draining divorce. Doctors performed a lumpectomy, gave her radiation therapy, and pronounced her treated and cured.
But conventional medicine didn’t cure Reece. Her cancer eventually reappeared in one of her breasts and also spread to her lungs. Yet for years, however, Reece has been healthy and free of cancer. She credits her long-term survival to “quality” vitamin supplements, a good diet, and a great attitude toward life.
With guidance from Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD, also of Victoria, Reece has been taking a high-powered assortment of nutritional supplements, including vitamins A, C, D, and E, beta-carotene, selenium, and vitamin-like coenzyme Q10. “I do feel I need these extra supplements,” Reece says. “I think anyone in this situation would need them.”
While not “fanatical” about diet, Reece avoids eating meat and emphasizes fresh fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and a lot of vegetables. She soothes her soul–and reduces stress–with music, meditation, visualization, long walks, and a positive mental attitude.
Free Radical Damage
Conventional medicine has made few breakthroughs in preventing breast cancer. In 1994 and 1995, researchers identified two “breast cancer genes” that increased susceptibility to the disease. But the early promise of finding a genetic cause of breast cancer–and perhaps a treatment–has given way to disappointment. According to a recent report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, only four to six per cent of breast cancer patients have one of these genes.
So what then causes the majority of breast cancers? Most likely, it’s the same thing that leads to other types of cancer: mutations that randomly scramble deoxyribo-nucleic acid (DNA), the biological instructions that tell cells how to grow and function. When these instructions become damaged, cells age rapidly, behave abnormally, and can become cancerous.
Researchers believe that many of these mutations are caused by free radicals–hazardous molecules produced in the body and found in pollutants (such as smog and cigarette smoke). As the years go by, cells accumulate free radical damage, increasing the risk of breast cancer with age. The breasts consist of 70 to 90 percent fats, and fat cells are particularly susceptible to free radical damage.
Nutrients that Modify Breast Cancer Risk
Scientific research strongly suggests that it’s possible to reduce the risk of breast cancer by emphasizing foods and dietary supplements that contain protective antioxidants and natural estrogen blockers.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich in protective nutrients, such as antioxidants, which neutralize cancer-causing free radicals. A recent study by Shumin Zhang, MD, ScD, of Harvard University, found that women consuming five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables had a 23 per cent lower risk of developing breast cancer before menopause. An earlier study, by Jo L. Freudenheim, Ph.D., of the State University of New York, Buffalo, found that diets high in vegetables reduced the risk of breast cancer by 56 percent.
Fibre and Phytonutrients
Fruits and vegetables are also rich in dietary fibre, which also is associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer. Fibre may help by reducing estrogen levels in the body. Meanwhile, a group of compounds called indoles, found in broccoli and cauliflower, has been shown to break down estrogen into noncarcinogenic forms of the hormone.
Vegetables are particularly abundant in antioxidant carotenoids, several of which are associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer. Aisha O. Jumaan, PhD, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, recently reported that the long-term consumption of diets rich in beta-carotene (found in carrots and other vegetables) reduce the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. In an animal study, Boon P. Chew, PhD, of Washington State University, Pullman, found that supplemental lutein (found in broccoli and kale) protect against breast cancer. In another animal study, Japanese researchers described how supplemental lycopene (found in tomatoes) suppressed the growth of breast cancers.
As the body’s principal fat-soluble antioxidant, vitamin E can block free radical damage in fatty breast cells. Cell-culture studies have found that the natural vitamin E “succinate” form of the nutrient has the greatest anticancer properties. It appears to work, at least in part, by blocking a compound that promotes the growth of cancer cells. According to Maria C. Birchenall-Roberts, PhD, of the National Cancer Institute, vitamin E also induces “apoptosis?that is, the destruction of breast cancer cells.
The role of fats in breast cancer is hotly debated by the experts; some studies show that high-fat diets increase the risk of breast cancer, but other studies do not. The real answer may lie in the specific type of fats consumed. A number of studies have found that omega-6 fatty acids (found in corn, soy, and safflower oils) promote the growth of breast cancer. In contrast, omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish and flax seed) are protective. Taking fish oil capsules can greatly increase the amount of protective omega-3 fatty acids in breast tissue, according to a study of breast cancer patients by John A. Glaspy, MD, of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Olive oil, rich in monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acids, also appears to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, MD, of Harvard University has reported that women consuming diets rich in olive oil had a 25 percent lower risk of breast cancer, compared with women who ate little of the oil
Rajesh Agarwal, PhD, of the AMC Center Research Center, Denver, has shown there’s more than folklore to back up the benefits of silymarin, the antioxidant extract of the herb milk thistle. In the journal Cancer Research, Agarwal explained that silymarin inhibits the replication of cancer cells by blocking their DNA synthesis.
Asian woman eating high-soy diets have a relatively low risk of developing breast cancer, compared with American women who eat relatively little soy. Researchers believe that two antioxidant flavonoids in soy, genistein, and daidzein, may be protective. The reason, research indicates, is that these isoflavones are weak estrogens that attach to cells and block the cell-proliferating effect of the actual, more powerful hormone.
There’s tantalizing evidence that coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), a vitamin-like nutrient, can reduce the risk and recurrence of breast cancer. French researchers recently reported that women with breast cancer and noncancerous breast lesions had consistently lower blood levels of CoQ10, compared with healthy women.
In sum, women do not have to fear breast cancer. Everyone can has an opportunity to reduce their risk factors. Eating a diet rich in anti-oxidants and and taking some dietary supplements can slow the rate of cell damage–and likely reduce the long-term risk of breast cancer.
Men’s health across the life course
Theodore D. Cosco, PhD (Cantab) CPsychol