Targeted strategies for breast cancer prevention and management
Gillian Flower, ND
One in nine Canadian women can expect to develop breast cancer. Research shows that natural strategies can complement traditional medical care.
Canadians are enjoying longer and healthier lives than ever before. Middle age just isn’t what it used to be as we grasp aging by the horns and ride it with gusto into our seventies, eighties, and beyond. With the advent of longer lives, age-related concerns must remain on our radar. Breast cancer is one of those concerns with a reported 80 percent of cases occurring in women over 50. Conscious lifestyle choices and key supplements can provide tremendous support both to women optimizing their defences against cancer and to those receiving treatment.
The most potent cancer prevention strategies are found at our local natural grocer. Committing to a primarily plant-based, organic diet—bursting with colourful veggies and fruits, omega-3-rich fish and lean meats, fibre-full legumes, and whole grains—may reduce breast cancer risk by an estimated 25 to 40 percent.
Engaging in moderate to vigorous exercise for three hours a week may temper your risk by a similar amount. Quitting smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, and maintaining a healthy weight are also well-substantiated strategies to diminish risk.
Vitamin D may provide a bit of extra anticancer insurance. The so-called sunshine vitamin may reduce your chances of getting cancer in the first place and boost your odds of surviving a cancer diagnosis. Women with higher blood levels of vitamin D may go on to develop less invasive forms of cancer.
Extensive research continues in the area of vitamin D, sun exposure, and cancer prevention. While sunlight prompts our skin to make vitamin D, being outdoors may decrease cancer risk even further by influencing our immune system, hormone balance, and metabolism. Combine supplementation with a healthy dose of outdoor activity for maximum benefit.
Vitamin C, an essential contributor to immune function, allergic response, and skin healing, may also influence breast cancer. Women with higher levels of vitamin C at diagnosis are most likely to have successful treatment for their cancers. Supplementing with vitamin C and other antioxidants, including vitamin E and zinc, may decrease the risk of developing breast cancer over the long term.
Sleep is emerging as an important player in breast cancer. Working a career of nightshifts may double a woman’s chance of a breast cancer diagnosis. While women working at night may have less fun in the sun, consequently decreasing vitamin D production, low melatonin levels may also be to blame for higher cancer rates in this population.
Melatonin, released by a gland in our brains during sleep, seems to put the brakes on cancer growth. Shift work and exposure to light can hinder the release of this somniferous hormone, possibly leading to higher cancer rates. A regular bedtime and a dark sleeping environment will boost natural levels, while supplementation is also an excellent option.
Despite leading healthy lives and doing all the “right” things, many women will still face a cancer diagnosis. Far from being discouraged, these vital, vibrant women may take some comfort from the fact that their healthy lifestyles will improve their response to cancer treatment. Their commitments to prevention have not been in vain.
Conventional treatment options consist of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, often followed by hormonal or immune-based medications. Side effects of individual therapies are variable from person to person, but common challenges and helpful solutions are outlined below.
Radiation and chemotherapy can cause sometimes debilitating fatigue. Simple exercise is a powerful pick-me-up. Yoga and aerobic/resistance exercise can greatly improve energy levels and decrease treatment-associated fatigue. Choose a practice that you enjoy and put it into action before treatment begins.
Calendula cream soothes and heals skin irritated by repeated radiation treatments. Use an oil-free product and avoid applying prior to each day’s session. Taking curcumin, an extract from turmeric spice, can decrease the risk and intensity of skin injury while making cancerous cells more vulnerable to radiation damage.
Chemotherapy and radiation can deplete infection-fighting white blood cells, possibly leading to treatment delays or dose reductions. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has a long history of use in Chinese medicine yet combines well with modern medicines. Discuss the use of astragalus, mushroom supplements such as shiitake (Lentinula edodes), and turkey tail (Coriolus versicolor) with your health care practioner to boost immune function during treatment. Coriolus may also enhance survival times.
Nausea and vomiting occur with many different chemotherapy regimes. Ginger is a tried-and-true solution that may provide relief from these unwelcome symptoms. Try it as a supplement, chewable candy, or homemade tea. Acupuncture before and after chemo days can be immensely helpful. Ask your naturopathic doctor or acupuncturist about acupressure points you can use at home.
Mouth sores are a frequent complaint with some cancer chemotherapy drugs. Swishing your mouth with glutamine soothes irritated areas to help you eat and drink. Glutamine may address concerns on the other end of the digestive tract as well, calming diarrhea caused by chemotherapy and radiation. Probiotics are another very helpful option for disturbed bowel function.
Treatment with other chemotherapy drugs can cause tingling, numbness, or pain in feet and hands, halting further treatments when severe. Glutamine may provide some relief here as well by countering neuropathy, while fish oil could also help. Ice packs applied to hands and feet during chemo may prevent nerve damage before it happens, though the effects vary for each person.
Given that conventional cancer treatments may span many months or even years, maintaining overall life quality is vitally important. Intravenous vitamin C and mistletoe can help women endure the rigours of cancer therapy. Both treatments require recommendation or administration by a naturopathic or integrative medical doctor.
Intravenous vitamin C therapy was pioneered by Linus Pauling in the 1970s as a nutrient-based treatment for cancer. High doses of vitamin C (40 to 100 g) are administered through the circulatory system, bypassing the digestive system. Studies show distinct improvements in life quality in patients receiving chemotherapy with trends toward longer survival times.
Mistletoe (Viscum album) extracts have been used in Germany since the 1920s. Immune-stimulating compounds (lectins) are extracted from the mistletoe plant and injected into the skin, enhancing the monitoring and destruction of cancer cells. As with vitamin C, evidence of improved survival times and life quality is emerging.
Embrace a cancer prevention lifestyle plan at any point in your health journey. Strategic use of exercise, diet, acupuncture, supplements, and other therapies can contribute to successful breast cancer prevention and management.
Ground flaxseed may reduce breast cancer risk and may hinder cancer cell growth.
Eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (wild salmon, rainbow trout) is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer.
This common curry spice has demonstrated anticancer properties in animal and cell studies.
Eating broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cauliflower, and kale may be especially helpful in preventing premenopausal breast cancer.
Top up on blueberries, grapes, and the odd treat of dark chocolate to capture the anticancer benefits of this compound.