Breast Health Practices

Strategies to prevent cancer

Breast Health Practices

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Learn what you can do to minimize your risk of developing breast cancer.

Common symptoms

Perhaps as many as 90 percent of all women experience some symptoms such as breast pain, lumps, or nipple discharge by the time they reach menopause. Common noncancerous breast conditions generally fall into several broad categories and include breast pain, benign breast tumours, solitary lumps, fibrocystic changes, infections, and inflammation. Some, but not all, of these benign conditions can signal an increased risk for breast cancer.

To add to this sometimes confusing list of symptoms, most women experience physiological changes such as minor tenderness, swelling, and lumpiness before or after their menstrual periods, which are entirely normal. Monthly self-examinations help women identify what’s normal, and what’s not, for their breasts.

Breast exams

Self-exams

Despite reports questioning its effectiveness at detecting cancer, performing regular breast self-examination is still important, especially if you’re at higher risk. Your health care practitioner can advise what changes to look for and can provide instruction on proper self-examination techniques.

Mammography and thermography

Based on family and personal medical history, a health care practitioner will offer sound advice on how often mammograms are necessary. Alternatively, a thermography examination uses the body’s heat, rather than radiation, to detect abnormalities.

Unexplained changes

Consult a health care practitioner immediately about any, and all, unexplained changes to your breasts. The early detection of breast cancer provides the best chance for full recovery. But just how does breast cancer develop?

The role of estrogen

About two-thirds of breast cancers are hormone receptor positive, which means estrogen (and/or progesterone) is involved in the progress and prognosis of cancer growth and spread. Estrogen dominance occurs when estrogen dominates other sex hormones, such as testosterone and progesterone, in a way that predisposes one to breast cancer. It also increases the risk of ovarian cancer, fibroids, and many other conditions. (See sidebar below for other risk factors for breast cancer.)

Supplementation

These natural health products support general breast health and may help prevent breast cancer.

Bilberry

This close relative of the blueberry has a long history of medicinal use, including the treatment of fibrocystic breast disease. A 2010 study showed that bilberry inhibits the proliferation of breast cancer cells and induces cancer cell death at its lowest effective concentrations.

Chasteberry tree

This native of the Mediterranean and Central Asia has berries that have long been used for a variety of abnormalities, including breast pain (mastalgia) and menstrual abnormalities. Breast pain is seldom a symptom of breast cancer and often coincides with a woman’s monthly cycle.

Evening primrose oil

This oil contains an omega-6 essential fatty acid, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is believed to be the active ingredient. It may have an effect on treating breast cysts and is commonly used for treating breast pain.

Black cohosh

This member of the buttercup family is an immensely popular remedy for hormone-related symptoms, including pre- and postmenopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and irritability. Researchers have found evidence that black cohosh also appears to protect against breast cancer.

Indole-3-carbinol (I3C)

The phytochemical (active plant ingredient) I3C is found in cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. Studies show that it lowers urinary estrogen metabolite levels in women and may prevent breast cancer, as well as cervical, endometrial, and colorectal cancers.

Diindolylmethane (DIM)

This is a similar product, which is derived as a condensation product of I3C. In fact, upon interaction with stomach acid, I3C forms DIM. However, most studies show that DIM provides no superior clinical benefits over I3C.

Vitamin D3

A powerful antioxidant, vitamin D3 is also associated with a reduced risk of developing breast cancer. A large longitudinal study found that women with higher vitamin D levels had a 20 percent lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. These women consumed more than 300 IU of vitamin D3 a day (at least two low-fat dairy foods), compared to women who consumed 100 IU or less.

Other studies have also shown that people with higher serum levels of vitamin D have substantially lower rates of many kinds of cancer, including breast, ovarian, colon, and pancreatic.

Milk thistle

Used medicinally in China for over 2,000 years, milk thistle is most commonly used to treat liver and gallbladder disorders. It is a wonderful herb that aids the natural process of liver regeneration and detoxification.

Several studies have found that its component silibinin may reduce the growth of breast cancer cells. However, effects have not been shown in high quality human trials.

By being aware of the risk factors for breast cancer, having regular breast exams, and maintaining proper nutrition through food and supplementation, women can reduce their risk of breast cancer.


7 tips to prevent breast cancer

What to do How to do it
Exercise
  • Physical activity is associated with lower risk.
  • Get 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise (walking or swimming), or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (running).
  • Strength train twice a week.
Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Being overweight increases risk, especially after menopause.
  • Eat a balanced diet, including plenty of fibre, fresh fruits and cruciferous vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean protein, and whole grains.
  • Restrict the intake of fatty foods, refined carbohydrates, and sugared beverages.
Limit alcohol intake.
  • The more alcohol consumed, the greater the risk.
  • Limit alcoholic beverages to one a day.
Breastfeed longer.
  • The longer a woman breastfeeds, the greater the protective effect against breast cancer.
Discontinue hormone therapy.
  • Long-term combination therapy increases risk.
  • Ask your health care practitioner about safer natural alternatives.
Don’t smoke.
  • Long-term smoking is associated with an increased risk.
  • If you do smoke, find a local nonprofit support group, or check out lung.ca for tips on how to quit.
Avoid environmental pollutants.
  • Whenever possible, limit exposure to vehicle exhaust and air pollution, which studies have linked to increased risk.

Breast cancer risk factors

A laundry list of risk factors predispose women to breast cancer.

Factor Risk
age Two out of 3 invasive breast cancers affect women 55 and older.
personal history of breast cancer Cancer in one breast increases the risk 3 to 4 times of developing a new cancer in either breast.
family history Having a first-degree relative, such as a mother, sister, or daughter who had breast cancer doubles a woman’s risk.
genetic predisposition Between 5 and 10 percent of breast cancers are inherited.
radiation exposure Radiation treatments to the chest as a child or young adult may increase the risk of developing breast cancer later in life.
excess weight Fat tissue stores estrogen and increases estrogen levels in the body.
combined hormone replacement therapy The combination of estrogen and progesterone increases the risk of getting breast cancer and of dying from breast cancer with only 2 years of use; risk returns to “average” within 5 years of ending treatment.
birth control pills A small risk remains for up to 10 years after a woman stops taking them.
carcinogens These toxic agents are found in cigarette smoke and charred red meat.
working night shifts Recent studies indicate that working night shifts may increase the risk.

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