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Preventing Breast Cancer


When my mother died of breast cancer in 1992, as a doctor and a woman I vowed to find out whether the disease could be stopped before it ever started. The research didn't reveal any miracles; there's no elixir or habit that will guarantee protection. There are, however, dozens of diet principles, lifestyle habits, and supplements that show promise in published and ongoing studies for helping reduce a woman's risk.

I've assembled them here in my breast cancer defense plan -- with doable daily and weekly steps, as well as a list of risk-increasing habits to avoid, and a grocery list for your next trip. If you've had breast cancer or are undergoing treatment, be sure to talk to your health-care provider before making changes to your diet or adding supplements.

Text by Dr. Christine Horner; photographs by Karl Juengel

Eat Plenty of Organic Fruits, Vegetables, and Whole Grains
These plants contain a virtual anticancer pharmacy, starting with fiber. Studies are conflicting, but some show that women who eat a high-fiber diet have a significantly lower risk of breast cancer. Plant foods also contain dozens of vitamins, minerals, and plant-based chemicals that help protect against cancer. Since high doses of certain pesticides may increase cancer risk, go organic whenever possible.

Go for "Good" Fats
Some recent animal studies suggest that omega-3s may help suppress breast cancer tumors and prevent them from spreading, and ease chronic inflammation, a risk factor for cancer. Omega-9s, found in olive oil, also may lower your risk.

Drink Green Tea (or Take a Supplement)
Green tea contains antioxidants and health-promoting substances shown to help reduce the risk of cancer. It's not clear what the ideal number of cups is; some studies suggest that a cup daily is helpful, others say four or five.

Eat Two or Three Tablespoons of Ground Flaxseed
Recent research suggests that flaxseed is promising for prevention and that it may help prevent breast cancer from spreading. Besides being rich in omega-3s, flaxseeds are high in fiber and lignans, a part of plants' cell walls that may combat cancer. Since whole flaxseeds may pass through the body undigested, so grind them; add to fruit smoothies or sprinkle on salads.

Sleep from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M.
Two independent studies published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggest that sleeping at the darkest hours boosts levels of cancer-protective hormones, especially melatonin.

Get Your Heart Rate Up
Multiple studies have found that 30 minutes a day of aerobic exercise may cut your breast cancer risk by up to 30 percent, and it can help you maintain a healthy weight. Women with a healthy body mass index are at reduced risk.

Practice Stress Reduction
Reducing stress may reduce your risk of many diseases, including cancer. Choose a stress-reduction technique you enjoy (yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises) and practice it daily.

Take Cancer-Fighting Supplements
Added to a healthy diet, these supplements, found at natural-foods stores, may help further reduce your risk.

Arguably the No. 1 anticancer spice, turmeric helps the body neutralize environmental toxins and shut off the blood supply to tumors, enhances liver enzymes, and acts as a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. I recommend taking 1,000 mg in supplement form, and adding the spice to soups.

This mineral helps the body make a powerful antioxidant and studies show that selenium inhibits the formation of tumors and may slow their growth. Brazil nuts are the best source -- and, if necessary, supplement with 200 mcg (but not more) daily.

CoQ10 (If You're Over 35)
Low levels of this enzyme have been found in breast-cancer patients, and researchers hypothesize that supplementing may lower risk. Studies have used 100 to 150 mg daily, but discuss dosage with your health-care provider.

An Adaptogenic Herb
Ginseng, holy basil, and ashwaghanda have a long history of traditional use as health-boosting tonics. Lately termed adaptogens, these herbs can help ease the damaging effects of stress.

Whole-Food-Based Multivitamin
Choose one that includes the cancer-fighting nutrients folic acid, B12, and vitamins D and E. Food-based vitamins are more easily assimilated.

Eat a Serving of Whole Soy Foods
While isolated soy supplements are the subject of controversy when it comes to breast cancer, whole-soy foods, such as tempeh, tofu, and miso, appear to have a protective effect, particularly when they're part of a lifelong diet. A 2002 study found that women who ate soy four times a week during adolescence and adulthood had a 50 percent lower incidence of breast cancer than women who ate soy less frequently.

Make -- or Take -- Medicinal Mushrooms
Long used in parts of Asia for both preventing and treating cancer, mushrooms like reishi and maitake appear to boost the immune system and slow tumor growth. Incorporate maitake into soups or stir-fries, or take a medicinal mushroom supplement.

Eat a Clove of Fresh Garlic
Multiple studies have shown that garlic helps prevent cancer; the plant's allyl sulfur compounds inhibit tumors from forming in breast tissue, and garlic also increases the body's "natural killer" cells, which can kill cancer cells.

Have a Serving of Wakame or Mekabu Seaweed
These gifts from the sea are high in iodine, thought to have a cancer-protective effect, and early studies show they may help fight breast cancer and lower estrogen levels.

Use Anti-inflammatory Herbs
The COX-2 enzyme -- involved in inflammation and found in high levels in breast cancers -- promotes tumor-cell growth. Anti-inflammatory herbs like oregano and rosemary help block its ill effects; use these in cooking. Turmeric and holy basil also have potent anti-inflammatory effects.

Bad Fats
Saturated animal fats, trans fats, and hydrogenated fats promote inflammation and store estrogen and environmental toxins.They also make our cells more insulin resistant, leading to higher insulin levels in the body. Several studies have found that women with the highest insulin levels had an increased risk of breast cancer.

Red Meat
Women who eat the most red meat have been shown to have a dramatically increased risk of breast cancer. And watch your cooking methods: According to the American Cancer Society, grilling, broiling, or searing meat may create harmful chemicals. Substitute healthy sources of protein, like wild salmon and tempeh.

Sugar and "Bad" Carbs
Sugar and refined carbohydrates cause insulin levels to soar, increasing breast cancer risk. A 2004 study of nearly 2,000 women in Mexico found that those who ate diets high in carbs (more than 57 percent of diet) had double the risk. Choose healthy, fiber-rich whole grains, and use a natural sweetener like stevia, available in supplement aisles.

Conventional Dairy Products
There have been no conclusive studies linking dairy intake and cancer risk, but I believe organic dairy products are safer for a number of reasons -- among them, milk from cows treated with the hormone rbGH is very high in a particular protein hormone, IGF-1. High blood levels of this hormone are associated with breast cancer. Although it's not known whether drinking milk raises levels of IGF-1, I advocate caution.

Alcohol stimulates estrogen production and, according to the National Cancer Institute, it doesn't take much to increase your breast cancer risk. Just one daily drink ups your risk; two does so by up to 25 percent.

Smoking has many well-known ill health effects, including increasing your risk of breast cancer. Studies suggest that inhaling passive smoke may be just as bad.

Hormone-Replacement Therapy
Long-term use of HRT may significantly increase your risk of breast cancer, according to 2003 findings in the Women's Health Initiative study. To ease symptoms of menopause, work with a knowledgeable health-care practitioner on lifestyle changes and using herbs such as black cohosh.

Toxic Products in Your Home
Many conventional cleaning supplies, laundry detergents, lawn and garden chemicals, and personal-care products contain carcinogenic toxins. Help protect yourself and your family by using nontoxic and organic products.

Grocery List
Organically grown fruits and vegetables. Include cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, bok choy, and brussels sprouts
-Organic olive oil
-Fresh organic garlic
-Organic whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, or barley
-Whole soy products, such as tempeh, miso, and tofu
-Organic flaxseeds
-Organic green tea
-Organic spices: oregano, turmeric, rosemary
-Natural sweetener such as stevia, usually found in the supplement section
-Wakame or mekabu seaweed
-Brazil nuts
-Nontoxic laundry detergent, household cleaning supplies, and personal-care products

Supplement List
A whole-food-based multivitamin that contains folic acid, B12, and vitamins D and E
-Purified fish oil
-CoQ10 (if you're over 35)
-Green-tea supplement
-An adaptogenic herbal supplement, such as holy basil, ginseng, or ashwaganda
-Medicinal mushroom supplement

Text by Dr. Christine Horner; photographs by Karl Juengel

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