Aside from non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women today. The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2009 there will be 192,370 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in females and 1,910 cases in men in the United States. In addition, deaths from breast cancer are expected to total 40,170 females and 440 males.1 The good news is that although the breast cancer diagnosis rate has increased since the early 1990s, the overall breast cancer death rate has progressively dropped. This decrease can be attributed to early detection efforts, increased research, and advanced traditional and alternative treatment methods.
Perhaps the easiest means of early detection available to any woman concerned about breast cancer is the monthly breast self-exam (BSE). As renowned herbalist Susan Weed states, “Breast cancer causes distinct changes in the breast tissue. When we observe our breasts as closely as we do our faces, and touch them as often, these changes are more obvious.”2 BSE can help detect cancer in extremely early stages; those who perform BSE with attention and consistency can find cancers as small as one-eighth of an inch and locate masses that may be undetectable otherwise.3
Prescription for Nutritional Healing (Avery, 2000) recommends the following procedure for breast examination:4
- Stand in front of the mirror, raise your hands above your head and press them together. Check the shape of your breasts. Apply pressure, and check for irritation or dimpling of the skin, nipples that appear out of position, breasts that look different from one another, breast swelling, nipple pain, inverted nipples, nipple discharge or red scaling or thickening of the skin and nipples.
- Raise one arm over your head, and firmly explore your breast with your other hand. Start at the outer edge of the breast and, using a circular motion, work toward the nipple. Examine the area between the nipple and the armpit, as well as the armpit itself. You have lymph nodes in the armpit; the move freely, are soft and are not painful to the touch, so make sure to look for lumps that are unusually hard or immobile. When you are finished examining the first breast, repeat on the other side.
- Lie on your back and repeat step 2. It is sometimes easier to detect lumps in this position. Finally, squeeze each nipple gently and check for blood or a watery yellow or pink discharge.
In addition to monthly self-examination, the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) recommends that women between the ages of 20 and 39 have their breasts examined by a physician every one to three years. After age 40, the exam should be performed every year.
Diet and Nutrition
Approximately 60 percent of women in the United States and 35 percent in Europe are overweight or obese. In addition to an increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes, excess body weight is associated with risk of certain kinds of cancer, including breast cancer.5 Choosing to eat certain foods can not only significantly reduce obesity, but breast cancer as well. An analysis of 156 studies linking diet and cancer found consistent evidence that some foods actively protect cells from undergoing cancerous changes, especially in the breast.6
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans contain phytochemicals that are active against cancer initiation.7 Neutralizing carcinogenic compounds, they capture and neutralize free radicals. If cancer has already begun to grow, phytochemicals can disrupt the processes necessary for further growth and spread of the tumor by blocking metastasis .8 Some foods can even reverse damage to the DNA and turn off oncogenes (genes that can turn normal cells into tumorous cells).9 Organic foods may also significantly reduce your risk, as pesticides and other chemicals that can mimic the effect of estrogen have been linked to breast cancer.10
The following are some suggested dietary recommendations and sources to help counter and reverse the initiation, promotion, and growth of breast cancer:11
- Phytoestrogens: tofu, pomegranates, and root vegetables
- Cabbage family plants, grains, and beans: Sources include cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, rice, oats, wheat, and legumes
- Carotenes dark leafy greens, orange, and yellow produce
- Vitamin C complex: fresh, raw fruits and vegetables
- Vitamin E: sunflower seeds, freshly ground wheat, freshly pressed oils, olive oil, and flax seed oil
- Selenium: organically grown garlic, onions, and mushrooms
- Vitamin D: sunlight, sardines, and tuna
Orthodox medicine rarely focuses on the immune system as a means of preventing or curing cancer. However, building powerful immunity is an important part of prevention as well as treatment. A strong immune system is especially useful against cancers initiated by viruses (such as Epstein-Barr).12 A healthy diet like the one listed above plays a large role in building immunity. In addition, a number of clinical trials have shown regular exercise (including moderate exercise and yoga) to be strongly linked to heightened immunity and resistance to cancer.13
Herbal medicine is especially adept at building immunity. Utilizing certain plants can enhance and assist white blood cells, macrophages, and interferons, all important weapons in fighting cancer. White blood cells, for instance, are produced in the thymus gland and in the bone marrow. They come in many different forms, but all destroy cancer cells and viruses. Weed recommends herbs that enhance white blood cell production, including: astragalus, echinacea, Siberian ginseng, ginseng, reishii, wild mushrooms, licorice, and goldenseal. Macrophages, a type of white blood cells, live in the lymph nodes, the liver, and the spleen, where they eat bacteria and cellular debris, and prevent damage to the immune system. Herbs that assist in macrophage activity are echinacea, Siberian ginseng, ginseng, and licorice. Finally, interferon, which also plays a large role in immunity, binds to cell surfaces and initiate the creation of viral-inhibiting proteins. Astragalus, Echinacea, licorice, boneset, as well as reishii, shiitake, and zhu ling mushrooms enhance the production and use of interferon.14
Complementary and Alternative Medicine Therapies
Diet, exercise, and herbal treatments are just a few of the many natural treatments for breast cancer, and so is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). CAM is defined as methods used in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of disease that complement mainstream medicine.15
Research suggests that up to 64 percent of individuals with cancer use CAM in addition to their prescribed cancer treatments.16 The most commonly used therapies by women with breast cancer are nutrition and herbs, prayer and spiritual healing, acupuncture, and relaxation. Typically, patients incorporate CAM to relieve psychological (e.g., depression, anxiety) and physical (e.g., pain) distress, and to boost the immune system. When used with breast cancer treatment and prevention, CAM therapies have been very positive—a staggering 86 percent of patients felt their CAM was helpful and beneficial in treating their cancer .17
Breast cancer is a debilitating and potentially dangerous disease. However, by utilizing tools such as early detection, lifestyle changes, and both traditional and alternative treatment methods, you can reduce your risk. Another added benefit is that these methods can increase quality of life and provide a healthy foundation for health and wellbeing.
Kristin Henningsen, MS, CH, RYT
Kristin Henningsen is an adjunct professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences and teaches courses such as Vitamins, Herbs, and Nutritional Supplements and Contemporary Diet and Nutrition. Ms. Henningsen has deep roots in the fields of ethnobotany and herbal medicine. After receiving both her Bachelor of Science in Botany and Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology, Ms. Henningsen went on to complete her Master of Science in Biology at Northern Arizona University where she studied the medicinal plants of the area, focusing on their traditional uses by the 13 Native American tribes in the region. She has also worked as a research assistant with the nonprofit organization the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association, completing a field guide to the native plants of Arizona amongst other projects.
Ms. Henningsen has extended this work into the field of complementary and alternative medicine. She is a certified and practicing consulting herbalist, and is the proprietor of an herbal health and healing company. She has been researching, using, and teaching about medicinal plants for more than 10 years. Ms. Henningsen is also a certified yoga instructor and utilizes yoga therapy as an alternative healing technique.