Breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, after skin cancer. Every year about 230,000 women in this country are diagnosed with breast cancer, and 40,000 die from it. Mammograms and self-breast exams supposedly lead to early detection, but in reality, this is “late detection” because breast cancer has been present for years—up to 4 decades– by the time it is diagnosed. Some of the 2-billion cells in our bodies are always mutating. We evolved to eat plants, and plants contain micro-nutrients that destroy these mutant cells before they propagate– animal products lack this ability.
Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D. is one of the two doctors (Dr. Ornish was the other) who proved that plant-based, whole food nutrition with no salt, sugar or added oil reverses heart disease. Dr. Esselstyn, now in his 80s, started out as a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic decades ago. He was operating on young women who presented with breast cancer, and the treatment back then was radical mastectomy—a very disfiguring operation. Dr. Esselstyn started looking for a way to prevent breast cancer and found out that populations who ate a plant-based diet had an extremely low rate of breast cancer.
If you are a woman and want to do everything you can to prevent breast cancer, read the chapter on breast cancer in Dr. Greger’s book “How Not to Die,” and search breast cancer on his website NutritionFacts.org. If you are a breast cancer survivor, read “The Cancer Survivor’s Guide, Foods That Help You Fight Back!” by Neal Barnard, M.D. Following are some of the points made in these two books:
- In 2014 the World Health Organization upgraded its classification of alcohol to “a definitive human breast carcinogen.” The culprit is acetaldehyde, a toxic breakdown product of alcohol. Dr. Greger notes that the skin of grapes used to make red wine contains a compound that “may help cancel out some of the cancer-causing effects of the alcohol.”
- Melatonin, the “sleep hormone,” appears to have a protective effect against breast cancer. Melatonin levels are lowered by bright lights including computer and TV screens during pre-bedtime hours and by eating meat (for unknown reasons). Eating vegetables raises melatonin levels (again, for unknown reasons).
- Excess estrogen increases breast cancer risk, and women need to be hesitant about taking post-menopausal hormones (“bio-identical hormones” have not been proven to be any safer). Body fat produces estrogen, and therefore people who are overweight are at increased risk for breast cancer.
- Diets high in saturated fat from added oil (coconut oil has the most), meat, dairy products and eggs increase breast cancer risk.
- Regular exercise such as brisk walking for an hour a day lowers the percentage of body fat, and for that and other reasons exercise lowers breast cancer risk.
- Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are carcinogens produced by cooking beef, pork and other meat—and fish and poultry– at high temperatures, such as roasting, pan frying, grilling and baking. According to Dr. Greger, PhIP, “one of the most abundant HCAs in cooked meat, was found to have potent estrogen-like effects, fueling human breast-cancer cell growth.”
- Lignans are phytoestrogens that “dampen the effects of the body’s own estrogen” according to Dr. Greger. Lignans are particularly plentiful in flaxseeds, and are also found in berries, whole grains and dark, leafy greens. Flaxseed has even been shown to reduce breast cancer tumor growth. Antibiotics kill health-promoting gut bacteria which are important in activating lignans.
- According to Dr. Greger, some studies have shown a link between high cholesterol levels and breast cancer risk, thought to be due to our bodies “using cholesterol to make estrogen or to shore up tumor membranes to help the cancer migrate and invade more tissue.” Using statins to lower cholesterol does not decrease breast cancer risk.
- Fiber, which is found only in plant foods, helps remove estrogen via the GI tract and lowers breast cancer risk. For every 20 grams of fiber intake per day, there was a 15 percent lower risk of breast cancer in several studies.
- Apple peels contain a compound that activates a breast tumor-suppressor gene.
- Cancerous stem cells may be why breast cancer can sometimes recur years after apparently successful treatment. Sulforaphane, a component of cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower), “suppresses the ability of breast cancer stem cells to form tumors” according to Dr. Greger. Cooking destroys the enzyme that activates sulforaphane so some cruciferous vegetables should be eaten raw (or eat some raw ones before eating cooked cruciferous vegetables).
- Soybeans contain weak phytoestrogens (phyto = plant) called isoflavones, which attach to estrogen receptors in breast tissue, preventing stronger estrogens from attaching, thereby lowering breast cancer risk. It is thought that high soy intake is why the incidence of breast cancer is low in Asian women. If you are a breast cancer survivor, you should know that according to Dr. Greger, “women diagnosed with breast cancer who ate the most soy lived significantly longer and had a significantly lower risk of breast cancer recurrence.”