October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the United States, giving us an opportunity to bring awareness to the most common cancer in women throughout the world. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2021 an estimated 284,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. and the incidence rates are rising. Although it is relatively rare in men, breast cancer in males accounts for about 1% of breast cancers and the incidence in men has increased in recent decades. In addition, according to the World Health Organization, as of the end of 2020, there were 7.8 million women alive who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the past 5 years, making it the world’s most prevalent cancer. Chances are, you or someone you know has been or will be affected by this health challenge.
What Is Cancer?
The American Cancer Society defines cancer as “when cells grow out of control and crowd out normal cells.” Cancer isn’t just one disease but describes any number of situations where cell growth has gone unchecked. That is why there can be many different reasons why cancer develops. Cancer begins when one of our own cells undergoes a change and becomes abnormal. This can happen through exposure to cancer-causing agents, an inherited gene, or by a natural mutation in the DNA during cell division. Chronic inflammation in the body can also contribute to the formation of abnormal cells, as can imbalances in our metabolic functioning.
From a holistic perspective, cancer cells can be considered cells that have lost their connection to the whole, in the sense that they have ‘forgotten’ that they are part of a bigger system. The mechanisms activated within the cancer cells are for their own survival only, without regard for the rest of the system. Rather than participating with the rest of the body through the original functions of the cell, these cells beginning dividing uncontrollably, leading to damage of the surrounding tissue. Because they develop from our own cells, the immune system may not recognize these cells as abnormal, so they escape our natural detection and elimination.
What Causes Breast Cancer?
Although scientific research into breast cancer has been ongoing for many years, no one knows exactly what causes the disease to occur in a particular individual, and there are likely multiple factors involved for each person. We do know about some of the factors that can increase our risk of developing breast cancer, as well as many things we can do to reduce our risk. Having risk factors does not mean that you are sure to get the disease, so having a lifestyle that reduces the risk is important.
The lifestyle factors that can increase the risk of breast cancer that we can modify include: lack of regular physical activity, drinking alcohol, smoking, unmanaged stress, and exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, therefore paying attention to our choices around these activities can affect our breast cancer risk and are discussed below.
There are also some factors that increase the risk of breast cancer that we can’t control, such as inheriting certain genetic mutations. There are gene mutations that can significantly increase your risk of developing breast cancer, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes which are the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer. There are other gene mutations that are less common but can also increase your risk of cancer, such as ATM, TP53, and CHEK2, among others. If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, it is a good idea to speak with a genetic counselor to review your personal genetic risk. However, just because you have a gene mutation doesn’t mean you’ll develop breast cancer. Some of these mutations play more of a role than others. In addition, only 5-10% of cancers are due to these mutations.
Most of the gene mutations related to breast cancer are not these inherited genes but are due to other factors, like exposure to chemicals that can cause mutations, or mutations that occur as part of normal cell division. In addition, one of the risk factors that is being recognized more over time is the link between chronic inflammation and cancer development. When we have inflammation in the body, the excess of inflammatory chemicals can cause abnormal cells to form. Chronic inflammation can lead to genetic and cellular damage via the production of unstable molecules known as reactive oxygen species. This is known as oxidative stress. These molecules can damage DNA and cell walls and lead to the development of various types of cancer.
Let’s look at what we can do to reduce our risk of developing breast cancer, using a holistic approach that encompasses the body (physical), mind (emotional), and spirit (our connection to Self).
The Physical Body and Breast Cancer Risk
One of the main physical factors in developing breast cancer is an increased overall lifetime exposure to estrogen. Our lifetime exposure can be increased by early age of first menstruation, having a later onset of menopause, and taking various types of hormonal therapy. There are various lifestyle factors discussed below that can play a role in regulating the circulating levels of estrogen to reduce our risk.
The choices we make in terms of exercise can affect our risk of developing breast cancer. For example, we know that carrying excess fat tissue can affect the metabolism of estrogen and thus increase circulating levels in the body, contributing to an increased exposure to estrogen over a lifetime. A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to increased risk, while staying active and maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce the risk. A 2013 study, found that women with higher levels of daily exercise had lower levels of harmful estrogen metabolites in their bodies. It is recommended to get 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity, activity each week (or a combination of these) to reduce the risk of breast cancer. The mechanisms behind this risk reduction aren’t completely understood but may have to do with hormone balance, and effects on body weight and inflammation.
Diet and Nutritional Factors
Eating a diet high in saturated fat contributes to obesity and inflammation, as well as to the accumulation of many of the toxins that are stored in fat, thus leading to an increased risk of breast cancer. Research shows that eating a diet that is low in the healing phytochemicals found in plants can predispose us to a variety of illnesses, including breast cancer. On the other hand, there is good evidence that a diet that contains many cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and brussels sprouts) can help reduce the risk of breast cancer. These vegetables contain phytochemicals, such as indole-3-carbinol, which shifts estrogen metabolism away from the carcinogenic metabolites and toward a healthier estrogen metabolism, thus lowering the risk of breast cancer. Many of the nutrients and phytochemicals in these foods also communicate with our DNA and the DNA of cancer cells to reduce the risk of cancer. General dietary recommendations to reduce the risk of breast cancer include:
- Eat an anti-inflammatory, plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables and with adequate amounts of healthy spices. These foods all reduce inflammation which can reduce the risk of cancer.
- Eat foods containing omega-3 fatty acids. These can be found in cold-water fish, walnuts, soy, flaxseeds, and chia seeds. They can improve hormonal balance and are anti-inflammatory.
- Consumption of plant-based estrogens (phytoestrogens). Non-GMO soy foods (edamame, tofu, tempeh), legumes, and seeds have been associated with a lower breast cancer risk. However, do not overdo it with soy supplements and processed soy products as we don’t know the effects of high levels of these substances.
- Eat a high fiber diet. Dietary fiber helps with the elimination of excess estrogen.
- Choose organic fruits and vegetables to avoid exposure to pesticides and other harmful chemicals that can create cancer-causing mutations.
- If you eat fish, choose smaller, less fatty, non-bottom-dwelling varieties that don’t bioaccumulate toxins such as PCBs and heavy metals.
- If you eat beef, poultry, or dairy, choose organic if possible and hormone-free to avoid consuming the residue of livestock growth hormones, which can affect our hormonal balance.
In addition, alcohol consumption is clearly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. It is best not to drink alcohol, but for women who do drink, have no more than 1 drink/day. The mechanism for this risk factor is not fully clear but may have something to do with the metabolism of estrogen and circulating levels in the body.
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The Environment as Our Extended Body – The Role of Toxins
In considering our physical body, we need to include our environment, which is an extension of our body. With every breath we take, every bite of food, everything we bring in through our senses, and through all the processes of elimination, we are in constant contact and exchange with the molecules around us. Whatever is in our environment eventually is incorporated into our physical structure.
There are many studies that confirm the effects of environmental toxicity on the development of cancer, and specifically breast cancer. These toxins can directly damage the DNA in our cells as well as altering estrogen metabolism. Toxins known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) favor the formation of estrogen metabolites that can negatively stimulate breast tissue and promote cancer-cell growth.
Environmental toxins are found in many everyday products, from cosmetics and canned foods to cleaning agents and pesticides. Some of these chemicals, known as “endocrine-disrupting chemicals” (EDC’s), act like estrogen in the body and can also disrupt the body’s ability to detoxify substances, thus creating cancer-causing substances from natural substances already present in our body. Although some experts feel that we need more studies to determine the true risk of exposure to these toxins, other experts feel that there is enough evidence of harm that using “the precautionary principle” and avoiding EDC’s and other toxins is a good way to prevent breast cancer. Check out www.ewg.org for specific guidance on how to reduce your exposure. Here are some of the major EDC’s and toxins to avoid:
- Bisphenol A (BPA), found in the liner of most canned fruits and vegetables, many food containers, polycarbonate plastic water bottles, and thermal cash register receipts
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in tobacco smoke, char-grilled foods, vehicle exhaust, and gasoline fumes
- Flame retardants (such as PBDE in foam mattresses, furniture, and children’s sleepwear)
- Plasticizers (such as phthalates found in some children’s toys, and PVC plastics)
- Some weed killers (herbicides such as atrazine and glyphosate)
- Some pesticides, especially organophosphate pesticides
- Air fresheners, chemical cleaning supplies, and detergents such as those containing 4-nonylphenol. Use nontoxic cleaning supplies that do not contain EDCs.
- EDCs in personal care products such as sunscreens, lotions, cosmetics, shampoos, fragrances, etc. Our skin is our largest organ and you should put nothing on your body that you would not also eat. Check out the safety of your personal care product ingredients at the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database website.
From a physical perspective, breast cancer prevention begins with lifestyle choices that reduce modifiable risks that affect the body’s overall estrogen burden, reduce exposure to harmful toxins and EDC’s, and that reduce overall inflammation in the body. By limiting toxicity in our lives, we can keep hormones balanced, avoid certain genes from expressing themselves, and increase the expression of health-promoting genes, doing what we can to prevent cancer.
The Role of the Mind and Our Emotions
From a mind-body perspective, emotional factors also play a role in the development of disease. Unresolved emotions or stored emotional toxicity create stress that can interfere with the normal communication between the cells in our body and can lead to abnormal cellular behavior. Unmanaged stress in our lives can send biochemical signals that put our body in fight-or-flight mode. These signals can suppress our immune system and interfere with our innate ability to remove abnormal cells. When we are under chronic stress, our mind and body become inflamed, and there is a release of harmful inflammatory chemicals that can increase our risk of cancer.
Many cells in our body respond to the chemical signals sent from our brain. We are constantly communicating our emotional state to the rest of our body via neurotransmitters. Therefore, a persistent negative emotional state can impair the proper functioning of our physical body. When we understand and accept this connection, we can begin to change the conversation that our mind is having with our body and move ourselves toward health, rather than away from it.
Prevention Through Emotional Release
There are many ways we can release accumulated emotional toxicity. Here are a few suggestions:
- Keep a journal. We can release toxic emotions by journaling. Identifying how we are feeling and writing it down has the same effect as releasing the feeling by talking to someone. It settles the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that is activated when we are stressed, provoking the body’s fight-or-flight response. Especially focus on releasing any fear, anger, guilt, and resentment that you may be storing. Write down your intention to release these emotions.
- Train your brain. Focus on positive thoughts whenever you notice negative ones. Instead of activating the stress part of our brain, when we have positive thoughts, we activate the cerebral cortex, which is where we feel joy, love, compassion, and peace. Whenever you notice your mind wandering towards negative thoughts, think of three things you are grateful for, or three things you like about yourself or someone else. This doesn’t mean you ignore the negative thoughts, but you can release them with your journaling and reprogram your patterned thinking.
- Exercise. Moving your body increases the feel-good hormones in your brain and decreases stress and inflammation, in addition to giving you many other physical benefits for reducing cancer risk, as discussed above.
The Spiritual Dimensions of Health and Well-being
In addition to the appreciation of the mind-body connection, there is a growing appreciation for the importance of spiritual wellbeing. It is the part of our being where we experience meaning and purpose and a connection to something greater than our individual selves. This can also be considered the natural intelligence inherent in our mind-body that orchestrates the thousands of processes that occur every second without our conscious effort.
From this perspective, in the purest, uninhibited expression of nature’s intelligence, each cell in our body functions in its unique way, while also supporting the wholeness of our physiology. However, when there is some interference in this effortless communication between our cells, be it physical or emotional toxicity, or a loss of the sense of connectedness, individual cells begin to take on a life of their own without regard to the whole. When we consider this perspective, it opens us up to an increasing number of modalities that can help us return to our natural state of oneness and connectedness, such as meditation, yoga, and other spiritual practices.
Spiritual practices elicit a deep relaxation response in our mind-body. When we are in a state of deep relaxation and connection, our entire physiology has the potential to change. A 2017 study found that the practices of meditation and yoga can actually affect gene expression. The researchers were able to show that by engaging in various spiritual practices (meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and prayer), we can turn on (express) healthy genes and turn off (not express) harmful genes, even those related to cancer risk. Some of the thousands of genes that are affected are those that control inflammation, as well as those involved in how our immune system deals with abnormal cells when they arise.
In another study from 2008, a multi-center research group was able to show that there were thousands of genes that were differentially expressed between people who induced the relaxation response (the counterpart of the stress response) in the body, through breathing techniques, meditation, yoga, and guided imagery, and those that did not engage in those practices. What they found was that the genes that were affected were ones that control our capacity to respond to oxidative stress at the cellular level, as well as inflammation, two factors that we discussed that can make us more susceptible to cancer. They found that when we induce the relaxation response through these techniques, we are reversing the biological changes of flight-or-flight, thus reversing the negative biological effects of stress. In addition to affecting our genes, when we engage in spiritual practices, we learn to calm the emotional turmoil in our minds and reduce the stress physiology that can increase the risk of disease. We begin to access our innate healing abilities to keep us in balance and good health.
Here are a few ways to bring spiritual practices into your daily life:
- Meditate daily. There are many ways to meditate. All styles of meditation are designed to quiet the chatter of our minds and settle the body so that we can experience calm, peace, and connection.
- Practice yoga or other mind-body exercises. Yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and other practices are not only a form of physical exercise, but at a deeper level, they keep us aligned with our natural rhythms and balance. In fact, there are studies that show yoga can reduce inflammation specifically in breast cancer survivors.
- Connect to nature. Often people feel a deep spiritual connection by taking a walk in a beautiful natural setting, or by gazing up at the stars. Find a way to connect to nature wherever you live and feel your connection to the natural world. Nature-based interventions can improve mood and reduce the stress response, thus creating a healthier physiology.
- Connect with family and friends. When we nurture our intimate relationships with others, we feel the energy that connects us to all things. The love and support of people around us is a source of strength and healing, and can keep us healthy.
- Practice pranayama (yogic breathing techniques). Deep, rhythmic breathing induces the relaxation response and calms the mind and body to reduce the risk of disease. By practicing these ancient breathing techniques, we can connect to and experience true healing.
By understanding breast cancer from a mind-body-spirit perspective, we begin to see how our lifestyle choices affect our risk. We can then start to make choices that are most healthy for our physical and emotional layers while accessing our deepest source of health and natural balance through regular spiritual practices.
This article was last updated October 2021.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.