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Ways to reduce risk of breast cancer and help your body heal from it

For most women today, a diagnosis of breast cancer is not the end of the world. It is only a temporary distraction – one that can be treated with advanced medical modalities and with fewer side effects than before.

This means that we cannot just think about breast cancer in the context of treatment alone, but within the broader picture of moving on with life and preventing recurrence. We can do a lot with the food we eat – choosing the right types of natural and wholesome foods, preferably organic, can give us access to the right nutrients, which can work in sync with many other as-yet-undiscovered compounds in food (particularly fruits and vegetables) to maintain optimal health and balance in the body.

However, it is becoming more difficult to put such foods on our table. Due to modern growing and harvesting methods and environmental toxins in the atmosphere, foods today contain less-than-optimal levels of essential fats, vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients. Even when you do consume these nutrients, your body’s ability to absorb them may be depleted by the battering it has received from the disease and the treatment regimen. Here are a few ways you can help your body heal from breast cancer, and how to avoid the things that harm your body.

Helping Your Body

If your body is unable to absorb nutrients well, you may need supplementation. Supplementing your diet with vitamin D can have protective effects against cancer, as low vitamin D levels may increase the risk of breast cancer, as well as the risk of dying from it. Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA have numerous antiproliferative effects on breast cancer cells and enhanced protective effects when combined with several chemotherapeutic agents. DHA and EPA are also recommended for breast cancer survivors as they are believed to reduce inflammation and fatigue.

Another omega-3, GLA, can also promote the anti-inflammatory effect by helping to maintain balance in the fatty acids. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, have long been known to have anti-cancer properties. The main active compounds in the vegetables that possess these protective roles are isothiocyanates and DIM (3,3’-Diindolymethane).

DIM inhibits cancer cell growth in oestrogen-receptor positive and negative cells, and also modulates oestrogen metabolism. Melatonin is a hormone that may help to improve survival in some cancers and may enhance the effectiveness of conventional therapy.

Curcumin, the active component of turmeric, is believed to inhibit many types of tumours while sensitising cancer cells to other therapies like chemotherapy.

There are also several vitamins that can help cancer patients after therapy. These include vitamin E and vitamin K2. The latter, which is the most stable of all forms of vitamin K, is associated with reduced cancer incidence and death. As Asia is the cradle of traditional therapies, it comes as no surprise that several native herbs and spices also complement cancer treatment. One example is Scutellaria barbata, a herb that grows in South Korea and southern China. An extract of this plant has been shown to inhibit cancer cell growth and induce cancer cell death in advanced breast cancer.

Curcumin, the active component of turmeric, is believed to inhibit many types of tumours while sensitising cancer cells to other therapies like chemotherapy. Two components of milk thistle, silymarin and silibinin, have antiproliferative and antimetastatic properties. Lastly, we look at the powerful role of functional ingredients, namely antioxidants. Catechins, which are found in green tea, have numerous antimetastatic and antiproliferative benefits, while also enhancing other therapies.

Red wine and grapes contain an antioxidant called resveratrol, which has the potential to influence the methylation of genes in women at high risk of breast cancer. Resveratrol may also have beneficial effects for women undergoing radiation therapy, as it is believed to reduce the toxicity of the radiation. Quercetin can potentially inhibit breast cancer proliferation and induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the cancer cells. This antioxidant can also alter the metabolism of oestrogen to less toxic compounds, making it more beneficial for HER2/neu-positive cancer.

Finally, grape seed extract has been shown to inhibit the development of breast cancer cells in response to several common toxins. It may also inhibit the enzyme aromatase, a factor in hormone-sensitive cancers. You must seek the advice of your doctor or nutritionist before taking any of these or other types of nutritional supplements. If you take the wrong types or in the wrong dose, supplements can interfere with the effects of treatment for cancer and other diseases.

Harming your body

Some components present in our food can increase the risk of breast cancer. One example is DDT, a pesticide ingredient that is also a hormone-disrupting chemical. DDT interferes with the functioning of oestrogen and increases the risk of birth defects, infertility and type 2 diabetes. It can increase the risk of breast cancer by four times. You may wonder why DDT is still a concern if it was banned almost 20 years ago in Malaysia. Unfortunately, the effects of DDT last for decades after exposure to it.

A large study of 20,000 women and 10,000 of their daughters has found that women exposed to higher levels of DDT while in their mother’s womb were nearly four times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, compared to women exposed to lower levels of DDT in the womb. These findings provide evidence that the harmful effects of DDT are seen across generations. DDT and similar chemicals tamper with the body’s natural oestrogen functioning, also increasing a person’s risk of birth defects, infertility and type 2 diabetes.

DDT can last in the soil for a very long time – it takes two to 15 years for half the DDT in soil to break down. Therefore, food sources can still contain DDT long after the pesticide has been used on the crops. We can be exposed to DDT from foods like meat, poultry, fish and shellfish, which had been exposed to DDT up to 15 years ago, and from imported foods from countries where DDT is still used. Eating fewer animal products and eating locally-produced food can lower our exposure to DDT.

We must continue to be vigilant against environmental causes of breast cancer that can pose a threat to generations of women. Also stop smoking; live healthily to avoid antibiotics and drugs; reduce animal proteins, dairy, well-cooked meat and high glycaemic carbohydrates; and avoid alcohol and fried foods.

By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, FEBRUARY 19, 2018