The statistics are well-known but still shocking: Every year, more than 330,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, and more than 43,000 die from it. Those frightening numbers are a relatively recent development: Breast cancer rates have more than doubled over the last few decades.
Modern lifestyle, rising cases
During my more than 20 years as a practicing gynecologist, I’ve seen a growing number of cases among my patients. I think there are several reasons for this steady rise:
- There is an increasing level of exposure to chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) found in many water bottles, and phthalates, found in soaps and shampoos, that interfere with our hormones (the body’s endocrine system). Exposure to these endocrine disruptors can upset the balance of the female sex hormone estrogen—a leading trigger of breast cancer.
- Our highly processed diets alter the gut microbiome—the trillions of friendly and unfriendly bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. When there are more “unfriendly” bacteria, there are higher levels of the enzyme beta-glucuronidase, which prevents the intestinal breakdown of estrogen, resulting in the reactivation of estrogen and an increase in the risk of breast cancer.
- Non-stop stress generates excess cortisol, a hormone that interferes with the breakdown of estrogen and increases inflammation (another risk factor for cancer).
- A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, perhaps because of increased body fat, poor blood sugar regulation, and inflammation.
- There are several hormonally driven gynecological conditions that indicate a woman has excess levels of estrogen—a leading risk factor for breast cancer, including endometriosis, uterine fibroids, heavy menstrual bleeding, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). If you have any of these conditions (or a family history of breast cancer), prevention is extra important for you. These and other lifestyle factors, such as being overweight or having more than one alcoholic drink a day, can nearly double your risk of breast cancer, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open. But that means that healthy lifestyle factors can do the opposite. Recent scientific studies show that the following steps can help you prevent breast cancer and, if you’ve already had it, keep it from coming back.
Eat more fiber
Researchers at Harvard Medical School analyzed data from 20 studies on fiber and breast cancer and found that people who ate the most fiber lowered their risk of breast cancer by 18 percent.
Why it works: Higher fiber intake feeds the friendly bacteria in your gut, crowding out unfriendly bacteria. It also bulks up your stool and helps counter constipation, both of which help with estrogen detoxification.
What to do: Increase your intake of high-fiber fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. To ensure maximum fiber intake, consider taking a fiber supplement, too. Psyllium husk works great.
Spice with onion and garlic
In a study published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer, women who ate a dish spiced with onion and garlic more than once a day had a 67 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women who never ate onions or garlic.
Why it works: Onions and garlic are loaded with prebiotics, a type of fiber that feeds probiotics, allowing them to flourish in your gut. Probiotics may help increase levels of estrobolome, a type of bacteria that specifically metabolizes estrogen.
What to do: Make sure you eat a dish containing onion or garlic at least five days a week.
Eat less red meat and more poultry
In a seven-year study published in the International Journal of Cancer, researchers analyzed health data from more than 40,000 women. They found that women who ate the most red meat had a 23 percent higher risk of breast cancer than those who ate the least. However, those who ate the most poultry had a 15 percent lower risk of breast cancer compared with those who ate the least. Women who substituted poultry for red meat had a 28 percent lower risk of breast cancer.
Why it works: Red meat typically delivers high levels of fat and growth hormones, both of which have been linked to breast cancer.
What to do: Eat red meat no more than a few times a month. Increase your intake of organic poultry. You might also want to eat more wild-caught fatty fish like salmon and sardines. They are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and studies link a higher intake of omega-3s with a lower risk of breast cancer.
Many studies link regular exercise to a lower risk of breast cancer. Now, a new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute shows the unique power of exercise for secondary prevention, too. Looking at more than 1,300 women diagnosed with breast cancer, the study found that women who exercised at a moderate intensity for at least 2.5 hours per week before and after their cancer diagnosis were 55 percent less likely to have their cancer return and 68 percent less likely to die of the disease. Even women who started exercising after the diagnosis were 46 percent less likely to have a recurrence and 43 percent less likely to die of the disease.
Why it works: Regular exercise helps improve and regulate nearly every cell, tissue, system, and organ—including strengthening your immune system, your main defense against cancer. Regular exercise also reduces circulating estrogen.
What to do: Aim for a weekly minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise like brisk walking, biking, water aerobics, dancing, doubles tennis, or hiking.
A study of more than 180,000 women published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that women who lost weight after the age of 50 and kept it off had a lower risk of breast cancer. And the more weight they lost, the lower the risk. Women who lost 20 pounds or more decreased risk by 26 percent. But even women who lost 5 to 10 pounds decreased their risk by 13 percent.
Why it works: Fat cells generate estrone, the type of estrogen generated after menopause. It is even a more stimulatory hormone than estradiol, which is generated by the ovaries, and can cause growth in breast tissue that leads to cancer.
What to do: Look at the main cause of your overweight. It’s different for each person. Are you eating too much? Are you an emotional eater? Are you not exercising enough? Is your thyroid out of whack? Is your stress too high? Explore and address the causes of your weight gain—ideally, with the help of a physician, health coach, or weight loss program.
Skip hair dyes and straighteners
An eight-year study published in the International Journal of Cancer looked at more than 46,000 women and their use of permanent hair dyes and straighteners. The researchers found a consistent pattern of increased risk for breast cancer in women who used the products in the year before the study began:
- African American women who used permanent hair dye every five to eight weeks or more had a 60 percent increased risk. (In general, the higher the frequency of use, the higher the risk, said the researchers.)
- Caucasian women who used permanent hair dye every five to eight weeks or more had an 8 percent increased risk.
- Women who used chemical hair straighteners every five to eight weeks had a 30 percent increased risk.
- Women who used semipermanent or temporary hair dye had very little increase in risk.
What happens: Hair dye and straighteners contain endocrine disruptors, and the latter also contains formaldehyde, a carcinogen.
What to do: It’s best to just avoid these products.