Breast Cancer: How to Reduce Your Risk Now

TODAY, I WOULD like to introduce you to my colleague at The UltraWellness Center in Lenox Massachusetts, Dr. Elizabeth Boham. She is a physician who practices Functional Medicine and is a Registered Dietitian. Among other things, Dr. Boham works every day with women who come to see her to help them decrease their risk of breast cancer. She wrote the following blog to give you some simple steps you can take to substantially decrease your chances of getting breast cancer. --Dr Mark Hyman Breast cancer is a serious concern, especially if you already suffered from the disease and are now afraid of a recurrence. If you are worried, it’s understandable. The incidence of breast cancer is skyrocketing ... Last year over 200,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer and 60,000 cases of non-invasive breast cancer were diagnosed. A woman’s risk of getting breast cancer has jumped from 1 in 20 in the 1960s to 1 in 8 today. Tragically, more than 40,000 women died from breast cancer alone last year. Why has there been such a huge escalation in the rates of this frightening disease? What’s the cause of this epidemic and what can we do about it?
This point is especially important for postmenopausal women. Percentage of body fat is the number one risk factor for breast cancer in this population.
Getting to the bottom of these questions is of personal interest to me. When I was 30 years old, I was diagnosed with an aggressive type of invasive breast cancer. At the time I thought I was healthy ... Before I went to med school my background was in nutrition and exercise physiology. I was an athlete, an avid exerciser, and was careful with my diet. I was young, had no family history of breast cancer, nor any signs of chronic illness. So when I was told I should have a mass in my breast removed, the last thing I thought it would be was cancer. I couldn’t understand how an otherwise healthy woman, like me, could get cancer. What did I do wrong? What could I do to reduce my risk of recurrence? Looking for answers to these questions sent me on a journey through my medical training and eventually to an education in Functional Medicine. What I discovered on that journey is that there are ways you can prevent breast cancer and reduce your risk of recurrence. In today’s blog I will share what I have learned. I will explain some of the underlying root causes of breast cancer and provide 9 tips to help you reduce your risk. What Functional Medicine Teaches Us about Breast Cancer In traditional medical training you don’t learn about the impact that things like diet, toxins, and digestion have on your overall health. Certainly the connections between how your gut functions, your toxic exposure, and your risk of breast cancer is not something most doctors are taught. To find real answers to my questions about breast cancer I knew I would have to dig deeper. When I finally found functional medicine, the answers it offered were like a revelation to me. Functional Medicine teaches us that imbalances in the 7 key systems in the body can lead to a host of diseases, including breast cancer. By analyzing which of these systems are out of balance and learning how to optimize them, you can decrease your risk of getting breast cancer or suffering a recurrence. When it comes to breast cancer specifically, there are many pieces to the puzzle, but one of the keys is balancing your estrogen levels. High levels of estrogen consistently correlate with breast cancer in most scientific studies. The first step to creating and maintaining estrogen balance is to overcome insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone released from your pancreas after a meal. It sends signals to your cells telling them to absorb sugar from your blood -- which is a critically important job. However, this finely orchestrated system is sent spiraling out of control by our modern diet. Sugar is the main culprit. When you eat too much of it, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, highly-refined and processed carbohydrates, or the multitude of other forms it comes in, your body sends out more insulin than it can properly use and you develop insulin resistance. What most people DON’T realize is that as your insulin levels increase your estrogen levels increase as well. That means your risk of breast cancer goes up every time you eat too much sugar! However, the havoc that insulin wreaks doesn’t stop there. Insulin resistance also increases the amount of body fat you have. As your body fat increases, so does an enzyme in your fat called aromatase. Aromatase turns hormones made in other organs in your bodies (such as your adrenal glands) into estrogen. That means your estrogen levels are raised even more, making your risk of breast cancer that much greater. This point is especially important for postmenopausal women. Percentage of body fat is the number one risk factor for breast cancer in this population. Excess insulin causes other problems that contribute to you risk as well: it may stimulate the growth of tumors in your body and increase systemic inflammation which is a leading factor in cancer of any kind. There are medications available that can help counteract these conditions. You can take aromatase inhibitors which are designed to prevent the aromatase in your body fat from converting your hormones into estrogen or you can take medications to balance your insulin and blood sugar. However, you can achieve the same effect naturally by choosing real, whole, organic foods, exercising daily, and maintaining a healthy body weight. As important as it is, insulin imbalance isn’t the only culprit that can lead to breast cancer. Environmental toxins have a major impact as well. The most damaging environmental toxin when it comes to breast cancer is estrogen and substances that mimic it. From birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy to eating meat and drinking milk from cows given growth hormones, we are all exposed to excess estrogen. The problem is compounded by the fact that other environmental toxins like some pesticides and compounds found in plastics mimic estrogen and stimulate the estrogen receptor in an unhealthy way. Obviously, estrogen isn’t a “toxin” in the sense that DDT is. But too much of it can be nearly as deadly and we are exposed to extraordinary amounts nearly every day. At the end of this blog I will explain how you can eliminate this toxic burden. Another critical part of your body you need to focus on if you want to limit your risk of breast cancer is your digestive system. What is the connection between your gut health the health of your breasts? Your flora -- or the good bacteria that live in your gut. These little symbiotic helpers not only strengthen your immune system and help you digest the foods you eat, they also help detoxify the estrogen made in your body after it’s been used. If your flora aren’t in balance, the estrogen your body needs to eliminate gets reabsorbed. This increases your estrogen level and exposes your body to unhealthy estrogen breakdown products. It’s interesting to note that many studies link increased use of antibiotics to an increased risk of breast cancer. This may be because excess antibiotic use kills off the good bacteria in your gut. Now you know some of the main contributing factors to breast cancer. Next let’s review what you can do to balance your estrogen levels, heal from insulin resistance, limit your toxic exposure, and support the flora in your gut. 10 Tips to Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer Following these steps will help you limit your risk of breast cancer: 1. Choose whole foods.
      This helps increase your insulin sensitivity and prevents insulin resistance. Follow the recommendations in Dr. Hyman’s book
    for more tips on which foods to choose.
2. Get 3-5 hours of exercise per week.
    This also helps increase your insulin sensitivity and allows you to more easily control your percentage of body fat.
3. Increase your fiber intake.
    Your goal is 35 gm per day. High-fiber foods include vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and whole grains such as brown rice and ground flax seed.
4. Have protein at every meal or snack of the day.
    Good protein sources include; fish, lean poultry, beans, nuts, eggs, and soy. Make sure you include a few vegetarian options in your daily protein intake.
5. Maintain a healthy weight.
    This is the best studied, most agreed upon step a woman can take to decrease her risk of breast cancer.
6. Get a good night's sleep.
    Sleeping well helps with weight control, insulin sensitivity, and supports your immune system. All of this is important for preventing cancer.
7. Choose organic and hormone-free meat, milk, and produce.
    This reduces your exposure to unwanted pesticides and hormones.
8. Avoid excess toxic exposure.
    Choose organic products for your lawn and garden, avoid dry cleaning, don’t use plastic bottles, and limit your intake of medications (like Tylenol) that get processed in your liver.
9. Take probiotics.
    Take 10 to 20 billion organisms on an empty stomach twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.
10. Limit your alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink per day and 5 per week—less is better.
    Remember 1 drink is 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol, or 12 ounces of beer.
These are just a few simple things you can do every day to reduce your risk of getting breast cancer. There are many others techniques you can use and I may explore some of them in future blogs. But by taking just these few steps you not only enhance the health of your breasts, but you start down the path of UltraWellness -- a path that promises nothing less than a lifetime of vital health, optimal weight, and mental acuity. Now I’d like to hear from you ... Have you struggled with breast cancer and if so, what has worked and what hasn’t? Do you have any additional recommendations that might benefit others who are struggling with breast cancer? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. To your good health, Elizabeth Boham MD, RD
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