When we hear the words “breast cancer,” we can’t help but feel a little shiver of fear down our backs. It’s the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the world (behind lung cancer). Statistics say that one in every eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. One in eight. If you’re a woman and go to a book club meeting with a group of friends, it’s likely that one of you will get that dreaded diagnosis. One of you will have to tell your family you have cancer. One of you will have to navigate the chilling world of radiation, chemotherapy, mastectomy, and other standard treatments that can cause as much harm as good. One of you will stay awake at night wondering what your future holds. One of you will always feel the threat of cancer hanging over your head.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve learned that cancer isn’t inevitable, even when our genes increase our risk. We can switch off those genes with potent nutraceuticals—plus sensible lifestyle and dietary changes—and turn those odds in our favor. In this Terry Talks Nutrition®, I’ll share natural ingredients that can keep you from becoming a breast cancer statistic.
Curcumin is a powerhouse in the natural medicine world, and extensive research points to its value as a breast cancer fighter, even for antiestrogen-resistant and triple negative breast cancers, which can be resistant to standard treatments. These dangerous cancers are also often highly invasive and more aggressive, and, therefore, women with these types of breast cancer generally experience poorer outcomes.
One of the remarkable things about curcumin is that it works through multiple cellular pathways to fight cancer. Besides being a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, curcumin also works by regulating various proteins and enzymes that affect cellular signaling and DNA. Researchers have studied curcumin to see if it could affect breast cancer cells (MCF-7 cells) that become resistant to antiestrogen drugs, such as tamoxifen. In a cell study, researchers found that curcumin helped induce a process that kills breast cancer cells called apoptosis. When this regulated cell death goes haywire, cancer cells can develop and spread. What’s more, the researchers found that curcumin treatment remarkably reduced the cancer cells’ ability to form colonies—by as much as 91 percent. Colony forming is a key step in metastasis, where cancer tumors form in other parts of the body, so this is very exciting news.
Additionally, in a study of triple negative breast cancer cells, curcumin inhibited angiogenesis—the growth of new blood vessels that feeds cancer tumors. As an addition to conventional treatment, curcumin also shines. Curcumin helps sensitize cancer cells to chemotherapy while also protecting normal cells from chemotherapy’s detrimental effects.
The best curcumin benefits are produced by combining curcumin with turmeric essential oil. Not only does this greatly boost absorption, but turmeric essential oil contains compounds called ar-turmerones that are not only anticancer, they make curcumin an even more powerful cancer fighter.
Pomegranate Seed Oil
Pomegranates are prized for their extraordinary antioxidant capacity, but pomegranate seeds have their own powerful anticancer chemicals. One of the most important is punicic acid, an omega-5 fatty acid that inhibits aromatase, an enzyme involved in estrogen conversion. Additionally, in a cellular study, punicic acid from pomegranate seed oil was capable of dramatic antitumor effects, inhibiting cancer cell proliferation up to 95 percent in breast cancer cells. In that same study, this omega-5 fatty acid also induced apoptosis (cancer cell death) by up to 91 percent. Similar results were seen regardless of whether the cancer cells were sensitive to estrogen or not.
Omega-5 fatty acids from pomegranate have some of the same actions as the anticancer drug tamoxifen without the dangers and side effects. Tamoxifen, like many drugs, is risky. It can cause blood clots, endometrial cancer, and early menopause, along with a higher risk of cataracts. In other research, pomegranate seed oil showed a 90% inhibition of MCF-7 breast cancer cells. The researchers stated that pomegranate has excellent cancer prevention properties—either on its own, or as an addition to conventional therapy—meaning less dependence on dangerous drugs.
Grape Seed Extract (OPC)
Grape seed extract is high in oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes (OPCs), which exert powerful antioxidant activity and are known cancer fighters. Grape seed extract is particularly useful for breast cancer because of its effects on aromatase. Aromatase inhibitors are prescribed to many women who have hormone-sensitive breast cancer. Cellular studies have indicated that grape seed extract both inhibits aromatase activity and also suppresses aromatase expression in cancer cells.
But grape seed extract isn’t just for hormone sensitive breast cancers. It also works on triple-negative breast cancer cells, which are highly malignant and fast growing. Grape seed extract at low concentration suppresses their ability to migrate and invade other parts of the body. Researchers found that grape seed extract may decrease the activities of certain genes in cancer tumors that are thought to be key contributors in cancer metastasis. Unfortunately, not all grape seed extracts are able to deliver the kind of OPCs that are vital for your health. Some OPCs can be so large (i.e. tannins) that they cannot be absorbed. Only smaller OPCs are useful in breast cancer, so make sure the grape seed you use is tannin-free.
Vitamin D may be best known for its role in maintaining bone health, but it also is a must have for breast cancer prevention. Unfortunately, many of us don’t get enough vitamin D, especially if we live in the upper two-thirds of the country, where our exposure to sunshine is limited. Vitamin D helps regulate cell division, programmed cell death, and contact inhibition, where normal cells quit growing when they encounter another cell. Vitamin D is a crucial component to cellular health. It makes sense then, that higher circulating levels of vitamin D in the blood have been associated with lower cancer incidence and better survival after diagnosis. For example, in a meta-analysis of 30 prospective studies on women diagnosed with breast cancer, those who had high blood levels of vitamin D had a much lower rate of mortality. In fact, those women with 25(OH)D (a measure of vitamin D in blood) levels over 29.1 ng/ml had a 42 percent reduced risk compared to those with levels less than 21 ng/ml.
I believe the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) guidelines for vitamin D (over 20 ng/ml) are grossly inadequate, and other professional organizations agree with me. For example, the Vitamin D Council recommends 50 ng/ml as the number we should shoot for. The Endocrine Society states that vitamin D levels over 30 ng/ml are sufficient. They’ve indicated that we might need 1,500-2,000 IU of vitamin D per day just to maintain levels above 30 ng/ml.
Take Control of Your Risk
Many factors make up your risk for developing breast cancer. Some you can’t control: Being a woman is the single greatest risk factor for developing breast cancer. You’re also at greater risk as you grow older. Most cases of breast cancer occur in women over the age of 50. Family history also plays a role, although it’s smaller than most people think. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), only about two percent of women have a strong risk of developing breast cancer based on family history. Even if you fit squarely under one or more of these risk categories, you can still lower your risk through sensible lifestyle changes.
We’ve known for a long time that smoking causes cancer, but some people think it’s only lung cancer. That’s simply not true. In a recent analysis of women in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), researchers found that women who smoked were at a significantly higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who had never smoked. What’s more, even women who had been exposed to cigarette smoking through second-hand smoke (called passive smoke) were at increased risk. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Various studies have found that women who have a high body mass index (BMI) after menopause are at higher risk for breast cancer. Weight gain is also associated with a higher mortality rate in women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. After menopause, most of the estrogen produced in a woman’s body comes from fat tissue. Research suggests that the increase in cancer may be related to increased estrogen stored in excess fat tissue. Other research points to an increase in insulin resistance as the real culprit driving the increase in breast cancer, so reducing sugar and simple carbohydrates in your diet makes sense.
Multiple studies have linked physical activity with a decreased risk of breast cancer. Being active can help you lose weight, keep insulin functioning properly, and lower estrogen levels. Researchers found that even physical activity associated with an occupation, like nursing or housekeeping, reduces the risk of cancer.
The study, published in the journal Cancer Causes and Control showed that women who spent at least three-quarters of their work years in active jobs had a 28 percent decreased risk of breast cancer. In those who’ve already had a diagnosis of breast cancer, regular exercise may also reduce the risk of recurrence and increase the odds of survival.
Avoid “One Size Fits All” Hormone Replacement Therapy
At one time, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was seen as a way to help menopausal women reduce their symptoms. Then the Women’s Health Initiative clinical trial that was evaluating the use of HRT in women was stopped early because of the health risks associated with HRT. Women on HRT had an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, and certain cancers. Notably, women who took estrogen plus progestin were more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancers were also larger and more aggressive, and the death rate was higher than in women taking a placebo. Many times menopause symptoms can be treated naturally, but if you and your doctor decide that HRT is necessary, stay away from synthetic hormones, especially progestin. Instead, choose bioidentical hormones at levels that make sense for your needs.
Go Easy on the Alcohol
Research suggests that drinking alcoholic beverages may increase a woman’s risk of hormone-sensitive breast cancer. Alcohol intake, even moderate amounts, may affect hormone levels in women.
Breastfeed Your Baby
The longer women breastfeed their babies, the more protected they are from breast cancer. That’s the conclusion of a review published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine that examined the results of 27 studies.
Be Cautious About Chemicals
When the Environmental Working Group analyzed popular fragrance products, they found an average of 14 chemicals not listed on the label, and many of these chemicals have not been subject to governmental safety assessments. Four of the fourteen are known hormone disrupters. Synthetic chemicals are pervasive in our environment—from pesticides sprayed on our produce, formaldehyde and bisphenol, to a leaking from plastics, and dioxins that have infiltrated our food chain. These chemicals can increase our risk of cancer and other diseases. Limit the use of chemical-laden personal products, household cleaners, pesticides, and herbicides. Buy organic produce, and reduce the use of food and beverages sold in plastic containers.
Fight Back Against Breast Cancer
You don’t have to feel powerless against the threat of breast cancer. Feel more in control by taking action steps to improve your health and by including nutrients that have been shown to make a real difference in fighting back against breast cancer.
To fight back against breast cancer, I recommend curcumin, French grape seed extract, pomegranate seed oil and fruit extract, and Vitamin D3 taken daily.