There is a scary statistic that says 1 in 9 Australian women under the age of 85 will develop breast cancer. If it was any other disease, we would be calling it an epidemic. What can be done about beating these odds? What causes breast cancer? It's the topic of thousands of research projects and millions of dollars annually, with no clear answers to date. However, there are several factors that contribute to one's chances of contracting breast cancer. Some of these risk factors are unavoidable, such as carrying the BRCA1 gene (the breast cancer gene), but there are other factors we can do something about.
For some time now we have known that women who eat a high fat diet, in particular animal fat, are more at risk of breast cancer. Many of us are also aware that being overweight, smoking and consuming large amounts of caffeine and alcohol are also risk factors.
What you might not know is the role that two nutritional factors have in preventing breast cancer, namely antioxidants and phytoestrogens. Tiny chemical by-products called free radicals are believed to be implicated in cancer formation. Antioxidant nutrients including vitamin E, C, beta-carotene, selenium and zinc are free radical scavengers, capable of gobbling up these free radicals before they can do harm. Virtually all fresh fruits and vegetables, especially the bright and strong coloured varieties such as tomatoes and broccoli, are good sources of antioxidants.
Some exciting new research has shown that phytoestrogens (plant hormones) may be the natural stars in breast cancer prevention. Phytoestrogens are found in large amounts in soy products (soy flour, tofu, tempeh, soy milk), and is thought to be the reason why soy eating Japanese women have low rates of breast cancer. Phytoestrogens are also found in alfalfa sprouts, chickpeas, peas, lentils, mung bean sprouts, spinach, whole grains, fruit, parsley, licorice, black cohosh and red clover.
Just how these phytoestrogens do their stuff is really quite interesting. A particular type of phytoestrogen called genistein, works by being able to fit into oestrogen receptor sites, located around the body, including the breasts. Receptor sites are like baseball mitts waiting to catch a baseball, where oestrogen is the baseball. The action of genistein is to 'fool' the receptor sites, making them unavailable to the body's own oestrogen. Why this is helpful is because the growth of some breast cancers is stimulated by oestrogen, so the less oestrogen on those mitts the better.
Changing our diet to reduce animal fats such as those found in red meats, deli meats, yellow cheese, butter and ice cream, as well as increasing fresh fruit and vegetables, and including a daily serving of soy or other phytoestrogen food is something positive we all can do to lower our risk of breast cancer.