Findings in breast cancer research

Breast cancer is arguably the most researched type of cancer in America. However, study after study delivers conflicting and competing evidence when it comes to prevention tactics. What we do know is that gender plays a large role - the disease is about 100 times more common in women than in men. Your risk also increases as you get older, with 2 out of 3 invasive breast cancers being found in women age 55 or older. While genetics play a part, it’s a relatively small one, with 5 to 10% of breast cancer cases attributed to heredity ( Outside of these unchangeable factors, here’s a look at what we do know.

Alcohol is bad news

“In terms of diet, alcohol consumption is one of the only items in the established [breast cancer risk] category,” says Dr. Bryan Loy, Humana’s physician lead for personalized medicine. He notes that alcohol has an enormous impact on how things are metabolized in the liver, which likewise impacts the liver’s ability to do its job. Research suggests that women who have 2 to 5 drinks daily increase their risk by roughly 1.5 times.

Super foods may save

  • The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “Dirty Dozen” lists the 12 most contaminated fruits and veggies. Try to opt for organic with these items:

Most of us have heard that we need to eat more fruits and veggies, especially when it comes to warding off various cancers. It’s true that a diet consisting of mostly plants is beneficial in many ways. In fact, some scientists are convinced that you can put the brakes on breast cancer by ingesting certain super foods, including mushrooms, blueberries and pomegranates. Research shows that these foods in particular contain natural chemicals that can arrest the development of breast cancer cells (City of Hope).

  • The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “Dirty Dozen” lists the 12 most contaminated fruits and veggies. Try to opt for organic with these items:

Organic is where it’s at

What we should really be worried about are the chemicals being used to grow our produce and the antibiotics used to treat our livestock. While there are no studies revealing a direct connection between the use of chemicals/antibiotics and breast cancer, there’s no evidence showing no connection. The solution? Buy organic to reduce your exposure. Of course, there is the cost factor, which most of us need to be aware of. The good news is, it isn’t necessary to buy organic with most fruits and veggies. But there is a small list of items that carry with them a higher risk of contamination. A good rule of thumb is that if you eat the outer layer of a fruit or vegetable, it should be organic. Get to know the “Dirty Dozen” before heading to the market (see sidebar). The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides is also a great resource to consult.

Working the night shift

For more than a decade, researchers have looked at the relationship between breast cancer and night shift workers. Recently, the British Medical Journal published a study that looked at the shift work patterns of roughly 3,000 women of the same age throughout their careers. Almost half of the women in the test group had breast cancer. Women who had worked night shifts for 30 years or more were twice as likely to develop the disease, compared to those who had worked night shifts for up to 14 years who showed no increased risk. The researchers concluded that the long-term exposure to artificial lighting and the resulting suppression of melatonin may be contributing factors. More research needs to be done around the specific shift patterns that increase breast cancer risk and how working the night shift can potentially lead to breast cancer.

Know your gene pool

Roughly 5 to 10% of breast cancers are caused by abnormal genes passed from parent to child. The abnormal genes associated with breast cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2. If you do have these genes, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Play it safe by learning more about your family history. You’re more at risk if:

  • Blood relatives were diagnosed before the age of 50
  • Breast and ovarian cancer run in your family
  • Other gland-related cancers run in your family, such as pancreatic, colon and thyroid
  • You are of Eastern European origin
  • You are African American and have been diagnosed at age 35 or younger
  • A man in your family has had breast cancer

If you do feel you are at risk, you can have a genetic test performed to determine if you have an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. For more information, visit the Genetic testing pages.

Sources not cited or linked to above:

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