Did you know that approximately one in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their life? More than 75 percent of breast cancer cases occur in women aged 50 and above; however the disease does strike women in their 20s, 30s and 40s.  Survival rates have improved in recent years; currently around 87 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are still alive five years later; in 1982-86 this figure was 71 percent.

However, the fact remains that breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related death in American women.  It is also the most feared disease by American women.

These are sobering statistics and many women feel powerless over their ability to prevent breast cancer. Many women have the idea that the disease is caused by bad genes and there’s really nothing that can be done to prevent it. The fact is only approximately 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases can be attributed to genetic causes. That means there are a range of other risk factors, many of which are under your control.

Breast cancer risk factors

There are several well-established risk factors for breast cancer:

  • Genetic factors
    Five to ten percent of breast cancer cases are caused by genetic mutations.  The most well known are the BRCA1 and BRAC2 genes. Women with these genes are at increased risk of breast, ovarian and colon cancer.  It is possible to inherit these mutated genes from either your mother or father.  Women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations have a 40 to 80 percent increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Family history
    If you have a sister, mother or daughter who has had breast cancer, your risk of the disease is increased by five to ten percent.  If two close relatives have had breast cancer, your risk is increased by 15 percent.
  • Early onset of menstruation and late menopause
    Women who began menstruating before the age of 11 have a three-fold increased risk of breast cancer. Women who are older than 54 when they enter menopause have a two fold higher risk of breast cancer. This is because the more years your breast tissue is exposed to high levels of estrogen, the greater your risk of the disease.
  • Never giving birth
    Pregnancy and breastfeeding offer protection against breast cancer; therefore women who have never given birth are at higher risk of the disease.
  • Progesterone deficiency
    Estrogen dominance, with progesterone deficiency is a risk factor for breast, uterine, ovarian and cervical cancer, as well as uterine fibroids.  Estrogen has a stimulating effect on breast cells, whereas progesterone causes them to mature and differentiate, thereby making breast tissue less susceptible to damage by cancer-causing agents.
  • Being overweight
    Being overweight or obese increases your risk of breast cancer, particularly if you carry some weight on your abdomen and upper body.  Women with diabetes and insulin resistance are also at increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Poor diet
    Diets high in sugar, processed foods, omega 6 oils, trans fatty acids and alcohol all increase the risk of breast cancer.  A deficiency of vitamin D, iodine and selenium also increases the risk.
  • Smoking cigarettes
    Smoking doubles the risk of breast cancer for women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 “breast cancer genes”.
  • Environmental chemicals
    A number of environmental toxins are strongly implicated in causing breast cancer.  These include pesticides, industrial chemicals, flame retardants, as well as chemicals in cosmetics and plastic.  Many of these toxins are estrogen mimics, meaning they behave like estrogen in the body.  Here is some excellent free information on how to minimize your exposure to harmful chemicals.

Sensitivity of breast tissue

Breast tissue is most sensitive to the cancer-causing effects of chemicals while you are a fetus in your mother’s uterus; while you are a child, during puberty and all the way up until your first full term pregnancy.  At the end of a full term pregnancy, breast cells mature and thereafter are far less susceptible to cancer-causing chemicals or radiation.  That is largely why women who have children early in life are less likely to develop breast cancer.  It also highlights the importance of pregnant women protecting themselves from environmental chemicals as much as possible, in order to protect their daughters.

Synthetic and natural hormones

Breast cancer is often referred to as a hormonally dependent cancer; this means that in most cases its growth is influenced by hormones.  The female hormone estrogen can stimulate the growth of breast cells and breast cancer cells.  There are various sources of estrogen; it is made in the body, can be taken in synthetic form in oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and some environmental chemicals behave like estrogen in the body.

The use of synthetic hormones in contraceptives and HRT increases the risk of breast cancer.  Many plants contain natural estrogen-like compounds; these are known to have a protective effect against cancer by protecting estrogen receptors in breast cells from more powerful estrogens.

Key ways to protect the health of your breasts

I recommend the following diet and lifestyle strategies:

  • Increase your intake of phytoestrogens
    Phytoestrogens are natural compounds found in a wide variety of plants that have a very similar structure to the body’s own estrogen; they are able to fit inside estrogen receptors in our cells.  However, phytoestrogens are up to 1000 times weaker than estrogen made by the body.  Phyto-estrogens help to protect the estrogen receptors in your breasts from more powerful estrogens made in your body or found in environmental chemicals.  Flaxseeds, legumes, nuts and seeds are all good sources of phytoestrogens.
  • Reduce your consumption of trans fatty acids and polyunsaturated omega 6 rich vegetable oil
    These fats increase the level of inflammation in your body, thus generating free radicals and using up antioxidants.  Excessive inflammation increases the risk of cancer.  These fats are found in many processed foods such as biscuits, cookies, pastries, chips, crackers and fried foods.
  • Ensure you receive optimum vitamin D, iodine and selenium
    Each of these nutrients plays a crucial role in protecting breast cells from harmful agents.  Deficiency of these nutrients is extremely common among women all over the world.
  • Eat more cruciferous vegetables
    Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower all contain indole 3 carbinol.  This compound improves the liver’s ability to detoxify and excrete estrogen from the body.
  • Cook with turmeric
    This yellow-colored spice helps to protect breast cells from the cancer-causing effects of pesticides.  Turmeric also reduces the ability of breast cancer cells to spread.
  • Minimize your exposure to plastic
    Bisphenol A and phthalates are two compounds found in a variety of plastic.  They have the ability to leach into food or liquids stored in plastic containers.  Therefore it is best to minimise eating or drinking out of plastic containers, and never heat food in plastic containers.

What about women who have had breast cancer?

The above recommendations are equally applicable for women who want to prevent breast cancer and women who have had breast cancer and want to avoid a recurrence.  Women who are currently undergoing radiotherapy or chemotherapy should speak to their doctor before taking nutritional supplements.

For in-depth information about reducing your risk of breast cancer using nutritional medicine, see our book The Breast Cancer Prevention Guide.

The above statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease.