Is breast cancer preventable?

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK. It is also one of the most preventable cancers.

As of 2012, there were nearly 1.7 million new cases representing approximately 12% of all new cancer cases and 25% of all cancers in women (The Open University). According to WebMD, 80% of all breast cancer cases are ER+, which means the cancer cells grow in response to the hormone oestrogen. In simpler terms, too much oestrogen in the body causes breast cancer in up to 80% of all breast cancer recorded cases.

Did you know that the countries with the highest breast cancer rates are higher-income westernised countries such as the US, UK, other Western Europe countries and Australia?

So why is this? Is it because screening for breast cancer is more easily accessible in these countries? Yes, it probably is, but if 80% of the cause of breast cancer is known to be related to an increase of oestrogen in the body, what causes this? Many people would just put the problem down to hormones and believe that there is nothing that they can do, but did you know that certain lifestyle choices can increase the amount of oestrogen the female body is exposed to?

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a tumorous growth in the breast tissue that can be fatal if not discovered in time. Cancer is caused by DNA mutations and when breast cancer is hereditary these mutations are passed to offspring from parents where cancer will take it’s time to grow. There are two different types of breast cancer. Hereditary cancer is very serious, because it is a gene mutation that is passed down to offspring. The cancer will slowly grow usually presenting itself around ages 25-30 years old. At this time it could be fatal if not caused early enough. Most hereditary breast cancer will result in a mastectomy.

The other type of breast cancer is what is known as ER Positive breast cancer, which is caused when there is too much oestrogen in the body. The hormone receptors of the breast cells signal growth, but when cancerous these receptors tell the cancer cells to grow much quickly causing a tumour.

What causes oestrogen positive breast cancer?

As previously mentioned, breast cancer can develop if the breasts are exposed to too much oestrogen. Here are some of the lifestyle choices that can cause over-exposure to oestrogen.

Combined contraceptive pill and oestrogen-only contraceptive pill

There are some links between taking a combined/oestrogen-only contraceptive pill and breast cancer. Taking extra oestrogen alters the balance of natural hormone production, therefore exposing the body to more oestrogen that it should. According to the NHS, “overall use of any combined pill in the past year was associated with a 50% increased risk of developing breast cancer, compared with never using the combined pill or using it more than one year ago. High-strength pills more than doubled risk, but these are no longer prescribed in the UK.” [1]

Not ever having a baby or breastfeeding

When you are pregnant or breastfeeding, your oestrogen levels are reduced, therefore you have less exposure to the hormone oestrogen.

Being overweight or obese

If you are obese, then your oestrogen levels are much lower, but if you continue your life in this way, then when you get to menopause, being overweight causes more oestrogen to be produced.

Hormone Replacement Therapy

Having HRT for more than a year can increase your exposure to oestrogen and therefore increase your risk.

Eating too many oestrogen rich foods

Natural oestrogen is found in many plant-based foods such as soy, tofu and some seeds. If you eat too many of these, then you are naturally increasing your oestrogen levels. Be very aware also that many supermarket meats are pumped full of hormones, oestradiol being one of them (oestradiol is a steroid hormone, a strong natural oestrogen used for animal growth).

It’s important to understand this is about prevention.

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, then you must clearly seek treatment. However, there are also some natural ways you can help to reduce your over-exposure to oestrogen before the event. Having this information will hopefully help you to consider how you can protect yourself from this disease.

If you are or have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, then I’d highly recommend eating more plant-based foods, avoiding oestrogen rich foods, as well as sourcing your meat produce from local farmers rather than supermarket. Taking care of your gut health is also important, whilst it cannot prevent cancer it can help keep your immune system strong and your body functioning all round.

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