Is Green the New Pink?
Lifestyle changes after breast cancer
Seldom does a day go by without a headline about something that will either cause or prevent cancer. Our report looks beyond these sometimes sensationalized headlines to see if there is any real evidence that lifestyle or environmental factors increase your risk, and whether significant changes make sense following diagnosis.
Once they have emerged from the ordeal of breast cancer treatment, it is understandable that many women are determined to do all they can to avoid anything that could cause a recurrence, while doing ‘the right things’ to prevent the disease. The problem is knowing where to start.
It could be very easy to feel overwhelmed by conflicting reports and scare stories. As the “green” movement has made it clear that our Western habits have grown increasingly unnatural, even more potential risks have come to light in our foods as well as our personal care products like makeup, shampoo and lotions. We’ve never questioned these products on a large scale, relative to our overall health – but perhaps we should have, all along.
On the other hand, could it be that the Internet Age is helping make mountains out of molehills? Not everyone who is exposed to DNA-mutating influences will develop cancer. So how do we get the headlines into perspective? And if we want to reduce our risk of breast cancer and recurrence, how do we prioritize so that we focus on the real ‘baddies’ and understand the reality behind some of the tabloid scares?
Biology 101: DNA mutations
U.S. expert Dr.Greg Orloff developed an award-winning website, CancerQuest.org, when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. As his site points out, “... simply put, cancer is the result of unregulated cell division. Cancer cells divide when they are not supposed to, don't stop dividing when they are supposed to and don't die when they should. In the worst cases, the cancer cells leave the area in which they arose and travel to other parts of the body.”
It seems that the reason cancer cells behave in this way lies in their genes. In cancer cells, changes (mutations) to key genes cause the cells to act abnormally. Because there are many different things that are capable of causing mutation, there are an equally large number of potential causes of cancer. These include:
- over-exposure to certain minerals and chemicals in the environment including asbestos and toxic waste, and to the sun (in the case of skin cancer);
- dietary factors such as too much fat and alcohol;
- and lifestyle factors such as smoking and too little exercise.
The lifestyle lowdown
Some reliable conclusions about cancer prevention are emerging. For example, there is increasing evidence that lifestyle plays a part. In December 2011, Cancer Research UK published the results of the most comprehensive study undertaken to date on the effects of lifestyle on cancer. The study concluded that 45 percent of all cancers in men could be prevented, and 40 percent of all cancers in women. This staggering figure takes into account every type of cancer – not just breast cancer – but it still provides some serious food for thought.
The charity estimated that tobacco smoking, dietary factors, drinking alcohol and body weight accounted for 34 percent of UK cancers during 2010. While acknowledging that in most cases, cancers have multiple causes, Dr. Harpal Kumar, the charity’s chief executive, said: “Leading a healthy life doesn’t guarantee that a person won’t get cancer but this study shows that healthy habits can significantly stack the odds in our favor. We know that cancer risk can be affected by family history and getting older, but these figures show that we can take positive steps to help reduce our risk of the disease.”
Like any statistical information, these conclusions need to be put into perspective when it comes to breast cancer, for which it remains the case that being female and over 50 are the two highest risk factors overall; however, it’s impossible to ignore the conclusions of this research.
Think before you eat
Scientists predict that the continuation of existing trends in obesity could lead to about 500,000 additional cases of cancer in the United States by 2030. There is no reason to question the medical community’s insistence that healthier diets are our first line of defense, and the general recommendations are becoming a familiar refrain:
- Replace animal fats with polyunsaturated fats (found in many vegetable oils) and monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil);
- Get more isoflavones (found in peas and beans) and lignans (found in vegetables, fruits, grains, tea and coffee);
- Eat more fiber from wheat bran, cereals, beans, fruits and vegetables;
- Make sure you have enough calcium in your diet – from low-fat milk, cheese and yogurts, green vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage and okra), nuts, bread and fish;
- Eat foods high in carotenoids (chemicals that the body changes to vitamin A) such as carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale and tomatoes.
Be Drink Aware
Alcohol is toxic and the body's detoxification process can cause DNA damage. What's more, research has shown that alcohol is a particular risk factor for breast cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, two large combined reviews of the published evidence and the UK Million Women Study showed an increase in breast cancer risk of about seven to 12% with every extra unit of alcohol consumed per day. (One unit is a half pint of beer, a small glass of wine or a measure of liquor.) To be on the safe side, it is best for women not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Experts also advise having at least two alcohol-free days each week, believing it important that alcohol consumption is not an everyday occurrence.
We also know that a woman’s stage of life is a factor – breast cancer in post-menopausal women is more likely if they are overweight, due to the high levels of estrogen present in their body fat. However, this is not the case in pre-menopausal women, where it’s thought that because women who are overweight ovulate less than their slimmer sisters, they are exposed to lower levels of estrogen. It’s best, in either case, to maintain a healthy weight (go to Cancer Research UK’s website for a Body Mass Index, or BMI, calculator) and avoid gaining that dreaded ‘fat around the middle’ that seems to beset anyone who is either heading for a natural menopause or plunged into one by breast cancer treatment.
Where lifestyle and environment intersect
Does your healthy diet need to be all-natural or organic to provide the best protection against cancer? It’s difficult to say. For one thing, the definitions of “organic” are still emerging, and can differ from nation to nation. Sometimes foods or food additives are blamed for directly causing cancer and described as carcinogenic. These can include:
- Growth hormones and antibiotics in animal farming;
- Pesticides and herbicides in plant farming;
- and bisphenol A (BPA) in some types of packaging.
Other researchers doubt that this is really true, claiming that although sometimes a food is found to contain a substance that can cause cancer, it is present in such small amounts that we could never eat enough of it to do any harm. According to the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) Guidelines on Nutrition, these additives and compounds may not directly cause cancer, but they may influence cancer risk in other ways – for example, by acting as hormone-like substances in the body. Its website says, “Whether organic foods carry a lower risk of cancer because they are less likely to be contaminated by compounds that might cause cancer is largely unknown.”
However, unprocessed and organic foods are typically more nutrient-dense, and less likely to include artificial and unintended ingredients. They may be a better nutritional choice for your peace of mind and for their other benefits: they are good for our planet, the welfare of farm animals and – because this seems to be the direction in which agriculture is heading – the livelihood of local farmers.
Marie Spano, a nutrition communications expert and member of the American Dietetic Association, agrees. “At this time, research hasn't clearly indicated that pesticides cause cancer or eating an organic diet prevents cancer,” she confirms. “However, for many people, choosing organic foods after a cancer diagnosis or when going into remission may put them at ease and it won't hurt. Does it help? I don't think we know the answer to this question yet.”
Spano recommends a few initial considerations, for people making small dietary changes: Start with foods with an edible skin (berries, for example) versus a skin you peel off and discard, like a banana. “There are other aspects of a healthy diet that may possibly reduce one's risk of developing some types of cancer, including reducing intake of red meat and packaged luncheon meats, cutting off any charred portions of meat, cooking low and slow instead of fast/high heat, and cutting off burnt crust on pies and baked goods,” she adds.
What about chemicals on the skin?
A synthetic preservative found in many food and cosmetic products, parabens are one of the media’s favorite chemical ‘nasties’ and have been found to have an estrogen-mimicking effect, although this is at a far lower level than the amount of estrogen produced naturally in the body.
As of our publication date [March 2013], there have been no conclusive studies to support any connection between parabens and breast cancer, and in fact several groups have spoken out to try to calm consumers’ fears. Sense about Science – a UK charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion – even issued a news release in January 2012 stating there is no evidence that parabens increase the risk of breast cancer.
Links are often made between cancer and chemicals in deodorants and antiperspirants but these, too, are refuted by cancer charities. Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s publication,The facts: deodorants and antiperspirants, concludes, again, that there is no reliable evidence to suggest that using these personal care products increases the risk of cancer.
Nevertheless, the cosmetics industry has begun in the last several years, to re-evaluate and reformulate, making many all-natural products available if women choose them. Ultimately, this change is a good thing, says Alison Raffaele, founder and Chief Creative Officer of New York-based Alison Raffaele Cosmetics.
Raffaele’s company began a product overhaul in 2007, after careful study of the parabens debate. “When we reformulated,” she says, “I asked, ‘What ingredients can I live with, and what do we need to get out?’” She and her team determined that the following could easily be replaced with equally effective and less dangerous preservatives instead:
- Parabens. Endocrine disruptors; the parabens that are used commercially are synthetically produced, although they can be identical to those found in nature.
- Talc. “In pressed form it’s not an issue,” Raffaele says, “but in a loose form it’s a major inhalation risk. It doesn’t break down in the body and can potentially form cysts.”
- Synthetic fragrances.
- Mineral oil and petrolatum. A by-product of petroleum, significant exposure to mineral oil mist (usually in industrial settings) has been shown to cause an increased risk of developing some cancers.
- Propylene-gycol. At 100% concentration, propylene-gycol is found as anti-freeze. In beauty products, it is not used at such a high concentration but is nonetheless a potential skin irritant.
The best choice is your choice
To date, then, scientific research does not point to increased risk from chemicals in our food or in health and beauty care products. However, many women remain convinced that reducing the chemical assault on their bodies has to be a good line of defense against cancer.
No-Brainers: 5 changes you can make NOW
1. Stop smoking! You know it makes sense. Go to www.Quitnet.com for expert advice, email tips and a community forum to get you started.
2. Eat fresh! Avoid processed foods like white breads, sugary drinks, chips, cakes and cookies. Snack on nuts and dried fruit if you get the munchies; remember your 5-a-day of vegetables and fruits; get plenty of fiber and focus on whole foods and lean protein like grilled fish or chicken to curb hunger.
3. Get out there! Add a little more activity into your daily life. Go for a 20-minute walk on your lunch break; bike to the park rather than taking the car; get together with friends for an early morning swim a few times a week.
4. Cut back on the drinks! Try to limit your alcohol intake to just a few units every now and then, and don't make alcohol a daily habit.
5. Get your rest! Create a sleep schedule and stick to it (even on weekends), so you get the recommended seven to nine hours a night. This can help with weight loss, mood and concentration and is a relatively easy – and totally natural – way to "up" your overall health.
Amoena Life talked to several women who have taken their own approach, making certain lifestyle changes that fit with their own values and ease their personal fears.
Sandi [who asked to remain anonymous] believes that the effect of the changes she has made, like giving up most processed food and using organic skincare, is more to do with peace of mind than a tangible benefit. “We all know how dangerous these things can be and although we can’t avoid all of them, we can do a little bit,” she says. “For yourself and for the environment and future generations, it’s important to think about changing our chemical world and living more naturally.”
Nutritionist Susannah Olivier’s book, The Breast Cancer Prevention and Recovery Diet, has been very popular since it was first published in 2001. Since reading it, Mary Jennings has cut down her intake of dairy products, salt and sugar, and tries to follow Susannah’s recommendations. Mary finds that she has more energy and has been able to keep her weight down since following the plan, which can only be a good thing: “Although I have been vegetarian and eaten quite healthily for many years, I have found that by cutting out dairy, plus some wheat products, and eating smaller, regular meals, I feel extremely healthy from the inside out!”
Many of the women we spoke to about lifestyle changes were convinced that eating more fresh fruit and vegetables and cutting back on saturated fats and processed meats helped them feel better and stay trim. And while the cancer-causing properties of some of the foods women had cut out are not scientifically proven, the protective benefits of healthier eating and maintaining a sensible weight certainly chime with the recent advice published by Cancer Research UK.
In conclusion, if you feel better about the choices you make, and if you read widely and make sure you stay in touch with what leading research organizations have to say about the key issues, you can only benefit from those choices as part of a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps green is your new pink. You can work to understand the risks and precautions associated with certain lifestyle choices, and decide which steps you want to take to help arm yourself against cancer. “It’s like avoiding a car accident,” concludes Dr. Orloff. “You can limit your risks by wearing a seat belt, not going out late at night and not driving while talking on your cell phone. But all these things can’t guarantee that you won’t be involved in a crash. The same goes for cancer. Individuals have to decide what they want to live with.”
This article was previously published in our Amoena Life magazine, the latest copy of which can be read online here. To make sure you hear about our new releases soon as they're available, sign up for our e-newsletter.