Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women accounting for one third of all cases, and is perhaps the single most important medical concern for women today. In Malaysia, approximately one in 20 women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime.
Early detection is key and the five-year survival rate of Stage 1 breast cancer patients is up to 98%. Self-examination and medical screening are important for early detection and the age group most at risk in Malaysia are women between 40 and 49. It is advisable for women above the age of 35 to have annual screenings.
Breast cancer is a complex disease and isn’t just about having a lump in your breast. There are many factors to take into consideration, which in turn decides what treatment is necessary.
Can a plant-based diet help?
What we consume has a far-reaching effect on our health and how an illness runs its course. An article published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2015 estimated that changing eating and exercise habits could prevent 25-30% of breast cancer cases. A large cohort study (91,000 people) also showed that a plant-based diet was associated with a 15% reduction in breast cancer risk.
Plant foods can fight cancer in a number of ways. Firstly; fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes provide phytonutrients, which are high in antioxidants and help combat free radical damage to our cells. A plant-based diet provides excellent nutrition and improves overall wellbeing, keeps energy levels up, boosts the immune system and provides nutrients needed for repair and maintenance.
Plant-based food to help beat breast cancer
Following a plant-based diet after being diagnosed is not about suddenly turning vegan. It’s about consuming certain food more and avoiding others. In general, breast cancer can be classified as estrogen receptor-positive (ER-positive) or estrogen receptor-negative (ER-negative). ER-negative breast cancers are typically more aggressive and harder to treat and make up 80% of breast cancer cases. Recent research by the University of Alabama at Birmingham identified certain foods (sulforaphane and polyphenols compounds found in plants) that may be able to transform ER-negative breast cancers into a more treatable disease.
These are the types of plant-based foods containing the specific compounds:
Broccoli sprouts and cruciferous vegetables like kale, cauliflower, cabbage, turnip, bok choy, watercress, brussels sprouts
This group of vegetables contains sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol (I3C), which is one of the key compounds needed to help fight cancer. Sulforaphane has an anti-inflammatory effect, can eliminate breast cancer causing chemicals and inhibit the growth of human breast cancer cells. To boost your intake of the anti-cancer compound, lightly steaming these vegetables is the best way to gain the bioactive nutrients.
Green tea is packed with polyphenols and catechins—a class of antioxidants with immense health benefits. A small study conducted by the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Cancer Institute found that Japanese women who drank at least one cup of green tea daily had less urinary estrogen - too much estrogen is linked to breast cancer. To reap the benefits, be sure to get tea from Japan and brew your own home. It takes 20 bottles of store-bought bottled tea to get the same amount of polyphenol as a single home-brewed cup.
Pomegranates are rich in polyphenols compounds, and have a high level of antioxidants. These help protect cells, and have the potential to be a preventive tool for certain cancers including breast cancer.
Berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, blackcurrants)
Berries have many health benefits including a high amount of polyphenols and vitamin C. There is some evidence that berries may help reduce the risk of breast cancer. Once cup of berries daily is recommended.
Plums and peaches
Some studies suggest that plums and peaches may help prevent breast cancer cells from forming, as the polyphone compounds help to protect and maintain the health of the cells.
Carotenoids found in dark orange/red plant such as carrots, tomatoes, cantaloupes, apricots, sweet potato.
These foods are typically high in Vitamin A, lutein, beta carotene and lycopene, all of which can be effective against free radicals and help reduce the risk of breast cancer. Beta-carotene found in carrots may actually inhibit ER-negative and ER-positive tumour development.
Flaxseed is the greatest source of mammalian lignans - phytoestrogens found in flax - which appears to bind with estrogen and lower circulating levels of estrogen. This action may act as a protective mechanisms against breast cancer. Studies show that consumption of 5 to 10 g of flax for seven weeks significantly decreased levels of estrone and estradiol.
Eating a serving of fungi a day might help protect you from breast cancer. Researchers found that Chinese women who consumed just 10 grams (which is equal to a 1-3 small mushrooms) or more of fresh mushrooms daily were about two-thirds less likely to develop breast cancer than non-mushroom eaters. High mushroom intake has also been associated with a lower risk of breast cancers among premenopausal women. While studies haven’t nailed a cause-and-effect relationship between mushrooms and breast health, you’ll still be doing your body a favour by adding immune-boosting vitamin-D-rich mushrooms to a meal.
What to avoid
Soy is the cause of controversial debate when it comes to breast cancer. Soy contains phytoestrogens, which mimic estrogen in the body. Many suggest that consuming soy-based food may increase estrogen levels, therefore increasing the risk of breast cancer, cervical cancer and other hormone imbalance related disorders. However, some studies also suggest that isoflavone found in soy helps lower the risk of breast cancer in Asian countries, but the evidence was insignificant for women in Western countries.As the data is conflicting, more studies need to be done to fully understand the effect of phytoestrogen. If you are concerned, it’s best to avoid soy phytoestrogen in supplement form, limit your daily soy intake and avoid GMO soy. You can consume traditional fermented soy products like miso and tempeh in moderation.
Refined vegetable oil
Many vegetable cooking oils like canola and sunflower are RBD (refined, bleached , deodorised), and extracted using chemical solvents. The fat in these oils is rancid and oxidised during the process. When we consume these oils, it releases more free radicals that damage our cells. This causes inflammation and weakens our immune system increasing the cancer risk.
Sugar—including sweet snacks, cake, biscuits
Food with a high sugar content are usually very processed, low in nutrients and dietary fiber. These foods also appear to increase insulin, and serum insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) levels, which can stimulate cancer cell growth.There are also many studies showing how an increase in insulin levels has a significant impact on our body and increases the risk of breast cancer. Sugar also encourages obesity, which increases the risk of developing breast cancer especially in post-menopausal women.
Fat affects the levels of hormones in our bodies. A diet comprising high levels of saturated fat increases hormone production, which is linked to breast cancer. Although healthy fats are important, animal products such as red meat, cheese, eggs and cow’s milk contain high amounts of saturated fat.
Regular consumption of alcohol may increase the risk for breast cancer . Consuming as little as 3-6 drinks/week is associated with increased breast cancer risk, and women who have at least 2 drinks daily on average have a 51% risk of breast cancer compared to those who never consume alcohol.
Note: If you’re concerned about any risks, talk to a doctor or dietitian about what kind of food to eat. Food is only part of the big picture. Exercise and a positive attitude are equally important.
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