This article was written by Lisa Turner and originally published in Amazing Wellness magazine.
Breast cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer death in women every year, is a big, scary diagnosis. But many other breast health issues, like benign lumps, bumps, and tenderness, affect women every day. Here’s your complete guide to protecting your breasts against cancer and other conditions, from puberty through menopause and beyond.
Breast Cancer Stats
In spite of advances in treatment, breast cancer is frighteningly prevalent. It affects more than 12 percent of American women. That means if you have eight female friends who live to be 85, at least one will likely have breast cancer at some point in her life. The good news: Breast cancer is very treatable if detected early. In nine out of 10 cases, she’ll live at least another five years (and usually longer). Once cancer starts to spread, though, treatment becomes difficult—so it’s important to get screening exams and check your breasts regularly.
Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Although the exact causes of breast cancer aren’t clear, the main risk factors are. Some of the most significant include:
- Age: About 67 percent of women who get breast cancer are over 50; most of the remaining 33 percent are between 39 and 49 years old.
- Medical History: Women who’ve previously had breast cancer—or endometrial, ovarian, or colon cancer—are at greater risk.
- Family History: Women whose mother, sister, or daughter have had breast cancer—especially before menopause—are two to three times more likely to develop breast cancer.
- Genetics: Mutations in certain genes (BRCA1 or BRCA2) predispose a woman to breast cancer, with a lifetime risk of 45 to 80 percent.
- Ethnic Background: African-American women are more likely to get breast cancer before menopause.
- Hormones: The greater a woman’s exposure to estrogen, the more likely she is to develop breast cancer. Early start of menstruation, late menopause, and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) using combined estrogen and progesterone all increase risk.
- Radiation: High doses of radiation can increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Obesity: Obesity alters estrogen metabolism and increases risk, especially in postmenopausal women.
- Drinking Alcohol: Women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15 percent higher risk.
- High-Fat Diets: Women whose diets are high in fat from red meat or dairy products are more likely to get breast cancer; reducing daily calories from fat to less than 20 to 30 percent, though, may have a protective effect.
Diet And Breast Cancer
While other research on the link between diet and breast cancer is less clear, we know certain foods and nutrients do offer protection.
Here are some of the best:
- Yellow-Orange Fruits And Vegetables: Sweet potatoes, carrots, mango, papaya, pumpkin, cantaloupe, and butternut squash are high in carotenoids. These antioxidants have been shown to reduce breast cancer risk by as much as 18 to 28 percent.
- Dark Leafy Greens: Spinach, Swiss chard, kale, collard greens, beet greens, mustard greens, and turnip greens are high in beta-carotene and other carotenoids, like lutein and zeaxanthin, that reduce breast cancer risk.
- Cruciferous Vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, radishes, Brussels sprouts, kale, and arugula inhibit the development of cancer cells and promote cancer cell death. They also reduce breast cancer risk.
- Fiber: Kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas are high in fiber, which has been shown to reduce breast cancer risk. Fiber’s protective effects are especially strong among women who eat more high-fiber foods in adolescence and young adulthood.
- Cold-Water Fish: Salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and herring are rich in EPA and DHA. These types of omega-3 fats protect against breast cancer development and encourage cancer cell death.
- Lignans: Flax seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and other seeds, as well as soy, legumes, and grains, are high in lignans. These plant compounds may reduce the risk of breast cancer by as much as 40 to 50 percent.
- Tea: Both green tea and black tea contain antioxidants called polyphenols, as well as other phytochemicals that protect against breast cancer and promote breast health.
Other Breast Issues
Cancer isn’t the only condition affecting the breasts. Though most of the following breast health problems don’t indicate cancer, any changes should be checked out by a physician. Below are some of the most prominent concerns:
- Lumpy Breasts: Hormonal shifts, especially before and during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, can cause benign breasts lumps, thickening, small masses, or cysts (known as fibrocystic changes).
- Breast Pain: Hormonal shifts can also cause sensitive, sore, or painful breasts, called mastalgia. Symptoms tend to resolve themselves on their own. Breast pain unrelated to the menstrual cycle is usually caused by another issue, like a muscle strain under the breast or a skin injury.
- Breast Inflammation: Mastitis (marked by redness, heat, lumpiness, and pain), is most commonly caused by an infection during breastfeeding; Blockage and inflammation of the breast duct at other times can also cause it.
- Nipple Discharge: Small amounts of fluid coming from the nipples are normal during pregnancy or breastfeeding, and may also be caused by hormonal changes, fibrocystic breasts, injury to the breasts, or some endocrine disorders. Bloody discharge should always be evaluated as soon as possible.
Nutrients For Breast Health
A number of nutrients support overall breast health. Consider upping your intake of the following:
- Vitamin E: Research shows eating 200 to 400 IUs of vitamin E a day may reduce the severity of breast pain and tenderness.
- Vitamin B6: Research suggests eating an additional 40 milligrams per day of vitamin B6 can also help reduce breast pain and tenderness.
- Iodine: Supplemental iodine can support normal breast tissue structure and function, promoting overall breast health. Because excess iodine can cause health problems, check with your doctor before adding a supplement.
- Vitamin A: Increased dietary intake of vitamin A has been associated with reduced risk of benign breast disease.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Some studies suggest dietary omega-3 fats may have a protective effect against benign fibrocystic breast changes, as well as the progression of breast cancer.