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Risk factors for breast cancer and how to reduce them

I thought I would address the rather daunting subject of breast cancer from a naturopathic perspective. As difficult as it might be to think about it, I believe knowledge can help you and there is nothing to be gained by burying your head in the sand. It’s important to know what the risk factors are and it is even more important to know what you can do about them.

As a naturopath, I look at diseases like breast cancer from a holistic perspective. I want my clients to be as healthy as they can be (within the context of their day-to-day lives), both physically and mentally. This gives you the best chance of avoiding illness or recovering from illness.

What are the risk factors for developing breast cancer?

Scientists are constantly debating the potential factors that contribute to your risk of developing breast cancer. It’s likely to be a combination of any of the following factors:

  • alcohol consumption – women who drink more than 3 standard drinks a day increase their risk of breast cancer by the same amount as smoking 1 pack of cigarettes per day or long term use of HRT
  • diet…especially lots of refined carbohydrates, insufficient fibre, lack of vegetables
  • being overweight
  • smoking
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • stress and its impact on your hormones and other biochemistry
  • exposure to pesticides and certain chemicals such as PCBs, dioxins and benzenes
  • use of the oral contraceptive pill or HRT
  • early menarche (the age at which you first commence menstruation)
  • higher bone mineral density after menopause
  • genetic mutations (particularly the BRCA gene)

What you might notice about this list is that, with the exception of the last three points, the rest are largely within your control. They are preventable (or at least things you can influence).

From a naturopathic perspective there is a lot we can do to minimise them. You can’t do anything to change a genetic mutation (although you might decide to find out if you have one if there is a history of breast cancer in your family) but doing what you can to reduce the other risk factors will help to minimise the impact of your genes.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of breast cancer?

  • a breast lump (may or may not be painful) any discharge from the nipple
  • any dimpling or redness of the breast skin
  • unexplained fatigue
  • breast or chest pain

So, get familiar with your breasts. Work out a way to make breast self-examination a part of your monthly routine….1st Saturday of the month, day five of your period, put a reminder in your phone, make a note in your diary…whatever helps you to get into a regular pattern. As well as feeling your breasts, look in the mirror and look for changes in shape, colour, size, contour or dimpling. Also, get your GP to check your breasts (mine does it whenever I have a pap smear…all part of the service!) and make a note of how they do it.

Know your risk factors, signs and symptoms and get familiar with your breasts

What can you do to reduce your breast cancer risk?

As a naturopath, my first objective is to help you improve your diet. If necessary, we may need to look at your lifestyle to ensure you are getting enough movement in your day and address the things that may be causing stress. These might be external factors or they could be other illnesses or health problems. And if we need to address weight, chemical exposure or smoking we’ll do that too.

It’s the three aspects of diet, exercise and stress management which form the solid base upon which herbal or nutritional supplements may be added if warranted.

Dietary tips for preventing breast cancer

It is part of my naturopathic philosophy that no one diet fits all!  However, there are some worthwhile things to consider:

  • increasing fibre (from fruit, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains) can help to reduce circulating oestrogen levels (important for reducing risk of oestrogen-dependant cancers).  Here is some more info on sources of fibre
  • cutting back on fat as a source of kilojoules has also been shown to reduce oestrogen levels
  • eating organic meat and fruit and vegetable can help reduce pesticide and chemical exposure
  • cutting back on refined carbohydrates and processed foods (things like biscuits, cakes, sugary drinks, pre-prepared foods etc (start by reducing foods that come in packets!)
  • incorporating whole (non GMO) soy foods into your diet
  • keeping your alcohol intake to a minimum

What else can you do to reduce your risk of breast cancer?

A further emerging area of research is looking at a possible relationship between breast cancer and a type of “mole” called a melanocytic nevi. It is coming up in the literature that premenopausal women who have in excess of 15 of these (greater than 3 mm) on one arm have an increased risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer.  At this stage it is not suggested that there is a causal relationship but they are possibly coming from the same source.  So if you think that might be you, it could be worth getting your skin checked out and being even more vigilant with your breast cancer prevention strategies.

A quick point on Vitamin D and breast cancer

My clients will already know I am vigilant about their vitamin D status for a whole range of reasons. But specifically in relation to breast cancer, studies have shown that a healthy vitamin D level (>75 nmol/L) at time of diagnosis improves your prognosis. So make sure you get your vitamin D levels checked (a simple blood test) as part of your annual or bi-annual health check-up.

Exercise and breast cancer

There is little doubt that exercise is one of THE BEST things you can do to reduce your breast cancer risk. Aim for 30 minutes at least 5 times per week at a moderate intensity (a little bit breathless) or greater.  Just as important, if not more so, is reducing the amount of time you are sedentary so all activity is helpful.

Stress and breast cancer

I have talked about the negative effects of stress in an earlier blog along with tips to reduce your stress chemicals. It’s these chemicals that are thought to disrupt our biochemistry with a subsequent increased risk of developing many illnesses including breast cancer. And don’t overlook insufficient sleep as a cause of stress on the body. In one large study women who consistently slept less than 6 hours each day were more likely to develop breast cancer compared to women who slept 7 hours per day.

If you think sleep might be an issue for you, you might like to read 9 ways to improve your sleep.

Putting it all together

Modifying diet and lifestyle, improving digestion and reducing toxicity can all help to move you towards a healthy weight which in turn, helps to reduce inflammation and oestrogen levels and regulate hormones like insulin and cortisol.

Start with the basics and if you are struggling, let us help. Naturopathy is based on the pillars of good diet and lifestyle. Using herbs and nutrients to provide additional support can help with losing weight, improving sleep and stress levels, helping quit smoking and improving digestion and detoxification.

Breast cancer is a complex disease and there are a whole bunch of factors which influence your risk of developing it as well as surviving it.  If you should be so unlucky as to develop breast cancer make sure you use all the people and resources at your disposal to maximise your chances of long term survival.

Want help with your health? Call me on 03 9620 9503 and let's have a chat about your best next step.
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