I am so excited to share this post with you! Dr. Chad Harston is a breast cancer specialist located in Lexington, Kentucky. He was trained in women’s imaging at Harvard and was chief of mammography at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio Texas for 4 years. He has conducted research in breast cancer imaging, and has also been an instructor for radiology resident physicians. He now works in private practice.
I recently met Dr. Harston when he contacted me to comment on my blog. At that time, he shared with me his passion about prevention. It was incredibly refreshing to hear this perspective from a doctor. With that, I asked Dr. Harston if he wanted to guest post on the blog. And boy did he deliver! Besides his awesome advice, I think you will enjoy his clear, and effective writing style.
Now on to Dr. Harston’s article:
One of the main reasons I became a doctor and specialized in breast cancer is to reduce death and unnecessary suffering from cancer and other chronic diseases. For breast cancer there are 3 major ways to accomplish this goal: 1. Prevent it. 2. Detect it early. 3. Treat it well. All 3 of these strategies are powerful and can even be used together. In my daily work I am mainly involved with early detection and effective treatment. However, true prevention through radical lifestyle change is my favorite because it has the greatest potential to reduce disease with the least amount of risk.
I would like to briefly discuss 4 tools women can use to prevent breast cancer:
- Reduce estrogen exposure as much as possible
- Avoid known cancer causing substances like tobacco and alcohol.
- Regular exercise.
- Eat a whole foods plant-based diet.
#1 Reduce Estrogen Exposure as much as Possible
First, women should know that anything that raises estrogen levels over prolonged periods of time will also increase the risk of breast cancer down the road. Some of these things may be within your control and others may not. Here are a few that have been proven to increase estrogen exposure and breast cancer risk:
- Early onset of menstruation (early menarche)
- Late menopause
- Few pregnancies
- Delaying pregnancy
- Little or no breast feeding
- Using hormonal contraceptives or hormone replacement pills
- Overweight or obese (adipose cells produce estrogen)
#2 Avoid Known Cancer Causing Substances Like Tobacco and Alcohol
Second, tobacco and alcohol both increase risk of breast cancer. A recent study found that women who stop smoking have nearly half the risk of cancer compared with those who continue to smoke (March 2011, British Medical Journal, Woman’s Health Initiative). Even as little as one alcoholic drink per day increases breast cancer risk by 10 – 12% (JAMA. 2011;306(17):1884-1890).
#3 Regular Exercise
Third, even small amounts of exercise will reduce breast cancer risk, but why be satisfied with a small amount? The degree of risk reduction is related with the amount of exercise performed. So, the more physical activity you engage in, the more you reduce your risk. A study from this year showed that women who were physically active for 10-19 hrs per week reduced their risk by 30%. This includes even mild intensity activities like walking and working in the yard. (LE McCullough et al, Cancer, 2012).
#4 Eat a Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet
Fourth, dramatic changes to the standard American diet can slash the risk of breast cancer. It boggles my mind that chronic diseases which are largely preventable account for the majority of deaths in the USA. This includes heart disease, diabetes, obesity and common cancers such as breast cancer. A careful look at the standard American diet reveals a likely major cause of this epidemic.
More than 95% of the calories on most Americans plates come from sources that are high in calories and low in disease-fighting substances like fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals from natural sources, and thousands of named and not yet named phytochemicals. Most of the calories that Americans are eating come from added sugar, added fat, refined grains, meat, eggs and dairy. Less than 5% of our calories come from whole (unprocessed) fruits and vegetables. It is no wonder we suffer from chronic diseases later in life when we overwhelm our bodies for decades with rich foods that contain little or no disease fighting nutrients.
A few years ago, I decided to turn this lethal ratio upside-down. I now try to get 95% of my calories from unprocessed vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains and raw nuts and seeds. I try to minimize foods with added fat, sugar or refined flour as well as meat, dairy and eggs. My goal is to make these disease-causing foods less than 5% of my total calories. I immediately experienced improvements in health including weight loss. My cholesterol level which had been high, plummeted. Since I stopped eating foods that contain cholesterol I no longer worry about having a heart attack, stroke or peripheral vascular disease. Furthermore, there are numerous powerful observational studies showing that cancer risks are dramatically lower with this type of diet. I recommend reading “The China Study” to start with. Also, keep reading Natalie’s excellent blog to learn more about disease-fighting plant foods!