Q. You believe most women today have an unspoken fear that breast cancer is inevitable.
A. Everyone knows somebody who has had it. As a plastic surgeon, I was taking care of postmastectomy patients. Then I lost my mom to it. So for me, getting a mammogram felt like playing Russian roulette: When is it going to get me?
Q. Why such fear?
A. Breast cancer incidence in the United States increased by 21 percent between 1999 and 2003 alone, though it’s leveled off since. But also, when I was working with the American Cancer Society, they trained us to say: “We don’t know what causes breast cancer; we don’t know a cure; and the best course of action is regular mammograms and breast exams.” But that’s not prevention—that’s catching it once you already have it. When it comes to breast cancer, we’re taught we have no power over our health.
Q. So you checked out the scientific research yourself.
A. I found thousands of studies showing why rates are so high. It’s no surprise: The American diet and lifestyle are a recipe for breast cancer. Women who eat the most red meat, especially well-done and grilled meat, have a 400 percent increased risk. Sugar is converted in the body to insulin, which is the preferred food for breast cancer cells. There’s also a link to alcohol—even half a glass a day can raise women’s risk between 6 percent and 18 percent.
Q. What else?
A. Obesity. After menopause, fat cells produce estrogen—and the more estrogen a woman is exposed to, the more likely she is to develop breast cancer. Also, many of us are sedentary, and regular exercise can lower cancer risk by 50 percent. Scientists have unknowingly created chemicals [often in pesticides and plastics] that mimic estrogen, but they’re usually stronger than natural estrogen.
Q. How can we help prevent breast cancer?
A. People who eat a primarily plant-based diet, preferably organic, are much less likely to develop cancer. Phytochemicals are potent natural medicines. For example, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli contain precursors to DIM (diindolylmethane), a compound that actually “turns on” our tumor suppression gene. Turmeric and green tea are also powerfully protective. Japanese studies show green tea even enhances chemotherapy activity. Every oncologist should know this!
Q. Lifestyle changes can make a big impact as well.
A. If you go to bed by 10 p.m., your risk goes way down. Researchers think it has to do with the sleep hormone melatonin, which is a powerful antioxidant and also decreases the amount of estrogen our body produces. If you go to bed late, your melatonin levels don’t rise as high. It’s also important to exercise daily and try to minimize stress.
Q. But we can’t keep stressful events from happening.
A. True, but there are things you can do that affect how your body responds to stress physiologically. People who regularly practice transcendental meditation use the hospital system 50 percent less for every diagnosis. Yoga and breathing exercises like pranayama have been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol—as has taking the herbs ashwagandha, ginseng, and holy basil.
Q. What about the debate about the benefits of soy?
A. The problem came when our reductionistic Western minds tried to find the active ingredient in soy. So researchers picked out genistein and isolated it, concentrated, and gave it to women in a way that you’d never get it in nature. Whole soy foods—tofu, tempeh, miso soup—are highly protective. Do not take genistein supplements.
Q. You recently left your practice to write and speak on breast cancer prevention.
A. I feel I can make a much bigger difference by getting this lifesaving knowledge out there. What a cool thing if we see the breast cancer epidemic end, right? And I think we have the information to do it.