The threat of breast cancer is scary: Even though heart disease kills far more women (and men), twice as many fear breast cancer, according to a recent survey by the Society for Women’s Health Research. And even though Angelina Jolie chose a double-mastectomy based on her inheritance of the BRCA1 gene mutation, three-fourths of all breast cancers are actually fueled by estrogen (which also contributes to severe PMS and endometriosis). That’s because estrogen stimulates new cell growth—good in pregnancy, but bad when it comes to a person at high risk for cancer.
Women’s bodies are estrogen factories, at least until menopause, but some women produce far more estrogen than others. Still other factors, such as obesity, birth control pills, and hormone-replacement therapy, can push women toward estrogen dominance and increase breast cancer risk. “We live in an environment that is increasingly saturated with estrogen mimickers, including pesticides and plastics,” says Greg Nigh, ND, who heads the Immersion Health naturopathic cancer clinic in Portland, Oregon. “This makes women collateral damage of our modern, industrialized way of life.”
There’s plenty you can do to reduce your risk and, if you are a breast cancer patient, to enhance your recovery and long-term survival. Consider these research-backed cancer fighters, listed in priority order.
Organic soy lecithin granules
Holistic physician Jennifer Kaumeyer, ND, of Wichita, Kansas, is a big fan of this chewy soy byproduct, which helps the body break down both estrogen and xenoestrogens (synthetic estrogen-like substances, such as pesticides). Lecithin is rich in phospho-lipids, the B vitamin choline, and vitamin-like inositol, which help the body break down estrogen. Supplemental lecithin also stimulates the release of bile, which binds to estrogen and helps the body excrete it.
If you’ve heard that soy contributes to hormone-related cancers, relax: Current science indicates that soy’s weak estrogenic effect blocks estrogen from attaching to cell receptors, so soy actually appears to offer cancer-preventive benefits. Sprinkle the granules directly on cereal, oatmeal, or salads. Dose: 1 tablespoon daily. Always choose organic soy to avoid GMOs and cancer-implicated pesticides.
Of all supplements, vitamin D offers the broadest benefits in reducing cancer risk generally and breast cancer risk specifically. One study found that low vitamin D levels upped the odds of being diagnosed with breast cancer, and a new report in Anticancer Research observed that breast cancer survivors with the highest vitamin D levels had half the death rate during the next 5 to 20 years compared with those with low vitamin D levels. Dose: 4,000 IU daily.
Two recent medical journal reports found that high omega-3 intake reduced breast cancer risk from one-fourth to one-third, with the greatest benefits coming after at least ten years of taking fish oil supplements. If you’ve already been diagnosed, ramp up your docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) intake. A study of 25 women, most with a poor prognosis because of metastatic breast cancer, found that taking large amounts of DHA daily significantly increased survival time, in some cases up to three years—and that’s from taking just one supplement. DHA also appears to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation. Dose: 1,000–2,000 mg combined eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and DHA omega-3s daily. Cancer patients and survivors should up the DHA dose to 1,800 mg daily.
This powerful red antioxidant, found in tomatoes, may play a big a role in breast cancer prevention, says Kaumeyer. Like other antioxidants, lycopene prevents cell damage that can set the stage for cancer. “Over the past three years I’ve seen at least 50 patients with breast cancer, and all of them have had below normal lycopene levels,” she says. Because natural-source lycopene contains several other health-promoting nutrients, look for products that use it rather than synthetic lycopene. Dose: 6–10 mg daily.
Part of the potent antioxidant glutathione peroxidase, selenium may reduce breast cancer risk in women with the BRCA1 gene mutation. A team of Canadian and European researchers noted a high rate of cell abnormalities in 26 women with the BRCA1 mutation. After the women took selenium supplements for three months, the number of abnormalities dropped to normal levels. A follow-up study found that two years of taking selenium supplements cut women’s risk of breast cancer in half. Dose: 200 mcg daily, an amount found in many multivitamin-mineral supplements.