Breast cancer is the most prevalent type of cancer among American women. In the course of a woman’s lifetime she has a 10.6% chance of getting breast cancer according to the American Cancer Society. Family history and quality of diet affect the impact of this percentage.
Over 100 American women die daily from breast cancer. This rate however reflects a decrease over the past 20 years primarily due to increased early detection.
When enough cells grow out of control they accumulate and form a tumor. If the cancer cells break away from this mass they then circulate throughout the body and can embed in another organ or site.
Cells are instructed by DNA as to how to reproduce, repair, and grow. If the genes of DNA are damaged, cancer can result. Mutation can occur during normal cell division randomly, or if the gene is exposed to a foreign agent. Or cells can be exposed to a carcinogen that damages DNA, such as cigarette smoke or pesticides. Weakened genes also can be inherited. However most cancers do not result from inherited genes.
Cancers then are the result of the interaction between genes and environmental agents. Eating a nutritious diet can fortify genes predisposed to breast cancer, so that they will never express their tendency.
According to Leslie Beck, R.D. in The Ultimate Nutrition Guide for Women (2001) Wiley & Sons: NJ, most breast cancers, while not detected until after menopause, actually begin to develop in the premenopausal years.
According to Beck the clearest risk factors for breast cancer are associated with hormonal and reproductive functions. Estrogen is thought to promote the growth and progress of mutated breaast cells. She discusses 6 major areas affecting a woman’s risk for this type of cancer.
1. Age- It is more likely to occur over the age of 50. 75% of breast cancers happen in postmenopausal years.
2. Previous breast cancer- This increases odds of getting it again in either breast.
3. Family history- First degree relatives (mother, sister, daughter) having had breast cancer doubles one’s risk, and there is an even greater risk when more than one close relative has been affected, especially if the relative contacted it at a young age.
4. Age of first pregnancy- Having a child prior to age 30 gives a woman a lower risk of breast cancer. The later after 30 a woman has her first child the greater the risk factor. Developing breast tissue is believed to be most sensitive to carcinogens between first menstruation and first pregnancy. Pregnancy hormones make breast tissue more resistant to carcinogens. These same hormones however stimulate mutation in women over age 30.
5. Age of first period- First menarche prior to age 12 is indicative of higher breast cancer risk. Breast tissue is then exposed to estrogen produced by one’s own body for a longer period, making greater the chance for cell mutation.
6. Late menopause- Menstruation for longer than 40 years lends slightly higher risk for breast cancer given the longer exposure to estrogen.
Beck further discusses 3 environmental factors which play a role in deveolping breast cancer.
1. Exposure to radiation- X-rays at a young age especially may increase risk for breast cancer later in life.
2. Use of hormones- In 2002 the Women’s Health Organization abruptly stopped the largest study ever conducted on hormone replacement therapy because they were finding a 26% higher risk of breast cancer among controls taking HRT (estrogen plus progestin). The study was indicating that the longer a woman stayed on HRT the greater her risk.
3. Diet- Poor diet is shown to initiate cancer growth, causing genetic mutation, and promoting cancerous cell growth.
More than 200 studies internationally have shown fruits and vegetable consumption lowers risk of many cancers. Dark green vegetables are apparantly most protective. Antioxidant nutrients supplied by these foods are believed to protect against harmful free radical damage to genetic material in cells which leads to cancer.
High fiber diets also have a tendency to have more antioxidant vitamins and be lower in fat (especially saturated fat) which has a protective influence over cancerous growth. Fiber should be increased in the diet gradually up to 25 grams daily. Overloading quickly on fiber can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Fiber also needs water to do its work. Eight ounces of water with each fiber meal or snack is best.
Alcohol may make breast cells more vulnerable to carcinogens. It also may inhibit cells ability to repair faulty genes. It tends to increase body estrogen levels also. If consumed at all, alcoholic beverages should be limited to one a day, or seven over the course of a week.