Did you know that the idea of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was started by a company that manufactures and sells mammography machines? It concerns me that women feel pressured into thinking of their breasts as two potentially premalignant lesions sitting on their chests.
Many women go on a search-and-destroy mission when they touch their breasts and have even
been taught to feel shame or embarrassment about them.
Often the message is that, to have power, you need to have big, bold, firm breasts that will attract men. That's one of the reasons why the number of women getting breast implants ballooned from 101,176 procedures in 1997 to 330,631 in 2012, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery,1 even though 40 per cent of women who get implants lose nipple sensation, a very important part of sexuality for most women.
Breast implants also render a woman 18 times more likely to develop a rare form of breast cancer called 'anaplastic large-cell lymphoma'.2
It isn't the size or shape of our breasts that gives us true power or attractiveness. Breasts represent nourishment and the deep bonds love can create. Regardless of their size or shape, here are a baker's dozen of ways to truly take care of your breasts.
1 Eat a healthful, low-GI diet with plenty of high-fibre vegetables and plant-based fats
High-fibre vegetables include broccoli and cabbage, turmeric, garlic, onions, tomatoes, kale and collard greens. Enjoy nuts, and flax, hemp or chia seeds. Eat fish or take fish-oil supplements so that you get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, because these antioxidants lower the risk of breast cancer.
A high-glycaemic index (GI) diet causes insulin resistance over time, and insulin resistance is a risk factor for breast cancer, so cut down on sugars and all grains while including healthy meats, fish, cheese and eggs. Add healthy fats such as coconut oil, avocado, macadamia nuts and flax oil. Don't worry about fats from healthy sources like these.
2 Take antioxidants such as vitamin C
Suggested daily dosage: 1,000-5,000 mg of vitamin C
3 Take coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone)
Low coenzyme Q10 has been linked to breast cancer, and few of us get much of it in our diets. (Organ meats provide significant amounts of coenzyme Q10, but most women don't eat them.) Low levels can also cause breast pain in menopause. Suggested daily dosage: 10-100 mg, or 70-100 mg if you're at high risk for breast cancer
4 Take vitamin D3
Note that most women require a supplement in addition to regular doses of sunlight. Test your vitamin D levels first, to find out where you stand, through your doctor or on your own, using an online lab that can do a 25(OH)D test. Optimal levels of vitamin D are 40-80 ng/mL (or 100-150 nmol/L), and research shows that a level of 52 ng/mL cuts your breast cancer risk in half compared with a level of 13 ng/mL.3
Suggested daily dosage: 2,000-5,000 IU in supplement form or through sunlight
5 Take iodine
The breasts require about 3 mg of iodine a day for optimal health, and the body itself requires another 9 mg or so. The safest food sources for iodine are kelp and organic eggs. Iodized salt, though better than nothing, isn't the best source because the iodine tends to evaporate out of the salt.
To test whether you're low in iodine, you can buy Lugol's iodine solution from the chemist and put some on your inner arm; it will stain and you should still see it 24 hours later. If not, you're low in iodine.
If you have thyroid issues, increase your iodine levels gradually, ideally under the guidance of a healthcare practitioner such as a naturopath, who is familiar with iodine and thyroid conditions.
Suggested daily dosage: 12.5 mg in supplement form
6 Drink in moderation, if at all
Drinking just one or more alcoholic beverages a day puts you at a 60 per cent higher risk of developing breast cancer. The risks may be greater still for women taking HRT (hormone replacement therapy). Alcohol consumption inhibits the ability of folic acid, a B vitamin, to repair DNA.
If you do drink, take a B-complex supplement, and remember that health is about enjoyment, not addiction. Reaching for a glass of wine as a way to add pleasure to your meal produces an entirely different result from reaching for a glass of wine to quell anxiety or sadness.
7 Don't smoke
Smoking increases the risk of breast cancer.
8 Go braless as much as possible so your lymphatic fluids can flow freely
If you have large breasts, it may be painful to go braless for too long or while you're exercising, but make sure you aren't in your bra all day long, much less at night.
If you have daughters and granddaughters, teach them that freedom is good for breasts. There is no evidence that going braless causes breasts to sag earlier than they would otherwise. Needing bras for 'training' or 'support' is simply a cultural myth-probably invented by a corset manufacturer. Bras are fashion accessories. They can be a most lovely addition to your wardrobe, but they are not a medical device.
9 Pay attention to any breast symptoms that suggest the need for hormonal balancing
Sore breasts are often a sign of suboptimal levels of iodine or oestrogen levels that are too high.
The cortisol connection
In perimenopause or menopause, the number-one hormone to be concerned about is not oestrogen or progesterone, or even testosterone, but cortisol. A stress hormone, cortisol is designed to be used by the body in situations of acute stress to help you deal with physical danger quickly.
Whether it's a snake about to bite you, or a bacteria or virus that has entered your system, cortisol temporarily activates the immune system, setting off an inflammatory response in which white blood cells gather around the pathogen to isolate it before attacking it.
The problem is that, if the cortisol and its partner epinephrine (adrenaline) are not cleared from your system quickly and instead linger for days or even weeks or months, they have the opposite effect of lowering your immunity and energy. Chronic fear, anger, sadness and resentment keep stress hormones in your system for too long, breaking down your immunity, thinning your skin and bones, causing weight gain and setting the stage for poor health-including depression, cancer and heart disease.
With your ovaries now decreasing their hormonal output, your adrenal glands take over some of the work of generating progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone-as well as DHEA, which serves as a building block for the other hormones.
But if your adrenal glands, the walnut-sized organs that sit on top of your kidneys, are overproducing cortisol and adrenaline, they will become overworked and overwhelmed by their task of generating stress hormones.
Your multitasking adrenals have to set priorities. They will favour your need for stress hormones, which can then throw off the production and metabolism of your other hormones.
There are three ways to test for hormones: saliva tests; blood tests; and urine tests. After working with all three of these for many years, my favourite-and the one I consider the most reliable at the moment-is serial urine testing, which tests for not only oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, but also for patterns of stress hormone release, which may mean some extra help is needed for your adrenals.
If your test results and symptoms confirm that you're low in oestrogen, try taking a phytoestrogen-oestrogen derived from plant sources-such as black cohosh, maca, flaxseed and Pueraria mirifica. Favour them over hormone replacement therapy and, of course, avoid the Pill.
10 Sweat regularly
Sweat is part of the body's natural system for shedding toxins and reducing cortisol levels. Exercise helps you maintain healthy levels of oestrogen and other hormones. Regular exercise decreases the risk of breast cancer probably because it decreases total body fat, and fat can produce excess oestrogen. According to one large study, women who were lean and exercised four hours a week had a 70 per cent reduction in their risk of breast cancer.4
11 Think twice about having regular mammograms
A groundbreaking study showed that routine mammography screening over the last 30 years has resulted in 1.3 million women being diagnosed with 'cancer' because their mammograms picked up ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).5 DCIS is not a cancer, but a type of cellular anomaly that women are more likely to die with than from because, in the vast majority of cases, it will never progress to actual breast cancer. Autopsy studies of healthy women in their 40s who died in car accidents have shown that as many as 40 per cent had evidence of DCIS in their breasts. Hence, scores of women are having radiation, surgery, mastectomies and chemotherapy treatments that are unnecessary.
In 2014, the Swiss Medical Board recommended abolishing all new mammography-screening programmes on the grounds that they do more harm than good. Its report stated: "For every breast cancer death prevented in U.S. women over 10 years of annual screening beginning at age 50 years, it is estimated that 490 to 670 women would have a false-positive mammogram with repeat examination, 70 to 100 would undergo unnecessary biopsy, and 3 to 14 would have an overdiagnosed breast cancer that would never have become clinically apparent."6
12 Opt for thermography over mammography
Unlike mammography, which involves exposing the chest and breasts to radiation, thermography detects heat in breast tissue that may be due to cellular inflammation; the results change as blood flow to your tissues changes. When blood vessels are being formed to support a cluster of abnormal cells with DNA mutations, the process releases heat that can be picked up on an infrared imaging camera.
In essence, you're seeing potential problems long before they become diagnosable disease. And you can respond by taking action to improve your breast health and doing another thermogram three months later to see if the inflammation has reversed. There are more than 40 years of research studies and more than 800 peer-reviewed studies supporting breast thermography.
13 Eliminate negative self-talk about your breasts, and avoid bonding with other women over how you don't like your breasts
Be the first one in your family or group of girlfriends to reject the habit of complaining about breast size and shape. Instead, stand up and proclaim the following: "I have a magnificent set. How about you?" Stand back and see what happens.
Let's change the conversation about our breasts from 'how to avoid breast cancer and detect it early' to 'how to have healthy breasts and enjoy them'.
1 American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS); www.surgery.org/media/statistics
2 JAMA, 2008; 300: 2030-5
3 J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol, 2007; 103: 708-11
4 Dishman R et al. Physical Activity Epidemiology, 2nd edn. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2012
5 N Engl J Med, 2012; 367: 1998-2005
6 JAMA Intern Med, 2014; 174: 448-54