When Angelina Jolie described her double mastectomy in an OP-ED column in the New York Times she started a discussion that I think is important. The well-known actress and activist is in a somewhat rare category when it comes to breast cancer risk in that she has the BRCA1 gene mutation. This is an inherited mutation that prevents the body from making essential repairs to DNA that is damaged in replication, leading to an accumulation of genetic defects and a greater risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Ms. Jolie was told she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer, which prompted her decision to have a prophylactic mastectomy. Personally I don’t blame her. If I got on a plane and was told there was an almost 90% chance it would crash, I’d get right off immediately. This is effectively what Ms. Jolie has done, reducing her risk of breast cancer to 5% in the process. This kind of surgery is a very personal decision and there are no right or wrong answers about what to do. However, I admire Ms. Jolie for being proactive and taking steps to minimize her risk so that she maximizes the chance that she’ll be around to take care of her children as they grow up.
However one of the things I realized from reading comments on my Facebook page is that there is lots of confusion about different types of breast cancer risk. Most women who develop breast cancer have no genetic risk at all (that we know of). Some women have less serious genetic issues that slightly increase their risk of breast cancer, a risk that can be managed and offset by adopting some lifestyle changes. And only very few women (one in 400-800) carry the BRAC1 gene mutation and are significantly predisposed to breast and ovarian cancers.
So for most of us there’s plenty we can do to lower our risk of breast cancer and here’s the advice we give our YinOva Center patients who are looking to do as much as they can to prevent this disease. Like everything we do at YinOva it’s based on the ancient wisdom of Chinese medicine but incorporates modern research too. That forms the basis of our YinOva Method , which is at the heart of our Cancer Care Program.
In Chinese Medicine there are four factors which are said to contribute to breast cancer (genetic predisposition not withstanding):
- Stagnation – lack of flow of qi and blood which over time leads to denser and denser tissue
- Heat and Toxicity – the presence of external toxins for example cigarette smoke, environmental toxins or chemical estrogens
- Deficiency – a failure of your body’s immune system to clean up abnormal cells
- Damp accumulation – this is a way of describing excess fat cells
Consequently, in Eastern medicine cancer prevention focuses on moving qi and blood, protecting the body from toxicity, clearing damp accumulation and supporting the body’s natural defenses. Western and Eastern medicine may come from a different frame of reference but their findings are very similar and the advice we give is therefore not inconsistent whether you see the world in an Eastern or a Western way (as you know at The YinOva center we do a bit of both). It can be grouped into the following areas:
- Support your liver in order to help your body to process estrogen
- Limit your exposure to external sources of estrogen and environmental toxins
- Support your general health
- Move qi and blood in the breast
- Explore the emotions associated with breast lumps
1 . Support your liver to help it process estrogens.
Some breast cancers grow in response to excess estrogen in the system, which means that it is helpful to support your liver whose job it is to process estrogen for you. A liver that is otherwise occupied by processing alcohol, for example, may not be able to process estrogen in the same way. Interestingly in Chinese medicine breast cancer is often related to liver qi stagnation, which is an Eastern way of describing an over-taxed liver leading to lack of flow of qi and blood which, as we talked about earlier, is one of the reasons for cancer from a Chinese medical perspective.
- Limit Alcohol -There is a strong link between breast cancer risk and alcohol consumption. In fact scientist have shown that drinking as little as one unit of alcohol a day raises your breast cancer risk by 5%. At The YinOva Center we suggest that our patients limit their alcohol to 3 – 4 drinks a week.
- To stimulate the liver you can use lemon juice, and put bitter greens such as dandelion greens, endive and raddichio in your salad.
- You can take liver-supporting herbs including dandelion root, milk thistle, burdock, artichoke and turmeric.
- B vitamins also aid the liver and are recommended. They can be added in the form of whole foods (such as lentils, rice bran, and blackstrap molasses) or supplements. Vitamin B6, in particular, enhances the breakdown and removal of estrogen from the body.
- At the YinOva Center we use a month long herbal detox made by Blessed Herbs which we find to be very helpful as part of a detoxification strategy.
- Flax seed oil improves liver function. Flax seed is particularly high in a phytoestrogen called lignan, which appears to decrease estrogen production and which may inhibit the growth of some breast cancers. To get the full benefit of the flax seeds you need to grind them up.
2. Limit your exposure to external sources of estrogen and environmental toxins
Controlling how much estrogen you take in is difficult in our estrogen-laden environment. The problem is that chemical estrogens have ways of entering our food and water supply. Agricultural chemicals and pesticides mimic the activity of estrogen, making estrogen receptor sites more sensitive. Urine, contaminated with high levels of residual estrogen from birth control pills, can seep back into water supplies through inadequate sewage treatment procedures. Plastic wrap and plastic food containers can leach estrogen-like compounds into our food. In Western terms these are known as xenoestrogens and in Eastern medicine they are considered to be environmental toxins, which, as we talked about earlier, can contribute to cancer.
- Unless your doctor considers it imperative, it is wise to avoid estrogen replacement therapy as a means of addressing menopausal symptoms.
- Avoid exposure to pesticides. Research has shown that the molecular structure of some pesticides closely resembles that of estrogen. This means they may attach to estrogen receptor sites in your body. One study found that women with breast cancer had elevated levels of pesticide residue in their breast tissue.
- Avoid hormonally treated meat and dairy
- Eat as much organic produce as you can
- Avoid refined and hydrogenated oils also called trans-fats. A study found that women with the highest levels of trans fats in their blood had twice the risk of breast cancer than women with the lowest levels.
- Eat cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and brussel sprouts. These contain a phytonutrient called diindolylmethane (DIM) which supports the activity of enzymes that improve estrogen metabolism. Scientific research shows diindolylmethane helps your body process estrogen so that less is free floating in your blood stream. In fact Chicago scientists are working on a broccoli based pill that would prevent breast cancer.
3. Support your general health
In Chinese medicine we believe that cancers grow when the body is no longer able to clean up. This is supported by current western medical research that shows that cancerous cells are normally cleaned up by the body’s immune system. Consequently, they proliferate when the body is overwhelmed and not able to mount a good defense. This is why current cancer research is focusing on supporting the body’s immune system as a way of combating cancer.
- Take regular exercise – Research has shown that women who exercise regularly can reduce their risk of breast cancer by 20%. In Eastern medicine exercise is considered to be the best way of moving qi and blood and as we mentioned earlier it is qi and blood stagnation that can contribute to cancer.
- Adopting a low fat, high fiber, mostly vegetarian diet is a helpful way of reducing the amount of free floating estrogen in your blood stream.
- Maintain a healthy weight – The link between obesity and breast cancer is clear. Researchers have found that if you are 22lbs over weight you increase your breast cancer risk by 18%. This is particularly true if you gain weight after menopause. The reason for this is that excess fatty tissue causes an increase in the amount of circulating estrogen and breast cancer risk increases in relation to the amount of estrogen you are exposed to during your lifetime. In Eastern medicine this weight gain is related to damp accumulation, which is a way of describing excess fat cells.
- Try to give up unhealthy habits such as smoking. If you need help with this talk to us at The YinOva Center about ways we can support you.
- As well as making lifestyle and dietary changes you should be vigilant about early detection of breast cancer. Start having mammograms every year after the age of 40 and examine your breasts once a month, preferably in the week after your period. If you notice any breast changes, such as a lump or skin changes contact your doctor.
- Take a vitamin D supplement – It seems to have a protective effect and research shows that breast cancer incidence is higher in women with low vitamin D levels.
4. Move qi and blood in the breast
Having lumpy breasts, also known as fibrocystic breasts, means that there is stagnation in your breast tissue from an Eastern perspective. Western clinical research seems to suggest that having fibrocystic breasts does not increase your risk of breast cancer unless some of the cells are already atypical. This fits with the Chinese medical idea that stagnation needs to be combined with other factors such as toxicity and weak immunity in order for cancer to develop. However we still recommend moving qi and blood in the breast as a way of taking preventative action against breast cancer.
- The best way of systemically moving qi and blood is to take regular exercise. At The YinOva Center, we recommend 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week.
- Regular acupuncture can move qi and blood
- If you suffer from fibrocystic breasts or even breast that are tender premenstrually ask us about herbal formulas that can help.
- If you suffer from tender breasts or have benign breast lumps apply a castor oil pack to the breast once a week. The pack invigorates the blood and helps the lymphatic system move debris. Apply caster oil to your breasts, cover the area with paper towel or a clean cotton cloth followed by plastic wrap, then place a heating pack or hot water bottle on top. This should be warm not scalding. If it is too hot place a towel between the hot pack and the plastic wrap.
5. Explore the emotions associated with breast lumpsIn Chinese medicine both benign and malignant breast lumps are associated with liver qi stagnation, which in turn is associated with repressed anger. In my practice I have noticed that my breast cancer patients have often experienced a situation about which they are still angry. Often they have been thwarted in some way or treated badly and been unable to give voice to their grievance. It is worth exploring these areas either by journaling or with a therapist.
Jill Blakeway is the founder of the YinOva Center in New York City. A licensed and board certified acupuncturist and herbalist, Jill is the author of two books on women’s health Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility and Sex Again: Recharging Your Libido.