Updated: Jul 9
Breast cancer is bad news. One out of every 8 women will get diagnosed and 1 out of every 30-40 will die from it. Keeping a straight poker face while nervously and cautiously palpating a suspicious breast mass is an art, but unfortunately we get quite good at it.
I remember the first time I felt a rock hard lump in my patient's breast. I couldn't keep a straight face back then and she noticed. I got super nervous and so she did too. She was in her thirties and came in for a routine exam because of her family history. The breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed shortly after when she got her mammogram and biopsy. She lost her hair, her dignity and her left breast. She smiled throughout though, and had a "fake it til you make it" approach. Funny how some people turn into superheroes after a crushing cancer diagnosis, while others just give up and fade away. If she's reading this right now, I want you to know that I regret reacting the way I did. I can't imagine what it was like getting that news from a visibly shook doctor. I now recognize that patients need rocks to lean on more than a stranger's shoulder to cry on.
My approach has changed quite a bit since 2007. Over the years, I've perfected and personalized my approach to giving bad news. It's not that I like to do it, but I'd rather do it myself than delegate it to my interns, knowing that this moment will be ingrained in my patient's mind forever. I've put lots of energy into learning how to give bad news appropriately. Nowadays, I'd rather use that same energy into preventing bad news from being given in the first place. Over the last 3 months, I have had well over a hundred messages from you, the readers, thanking me for educating you about prevention. I have had other doctors do the same and deep down I know I'm making a difference. What I had imagined a year ago, while staring out into space while my wife was signaling me to "snap out of it", was reaching way more people through my blog than the 30-40 patients per month who are actually interested in hearing me talk about how they could make lifestyle changes.
Most people aren't ready to change. But do you know who is? The people whom I've just given a crushing diagnosis to. It’s impressive how these people will clean up their nutrition, start exercising, walk in nature and change their outlook on life. We have a lot to learn from cancer survivors and they are truly the most fascinating and beautiful people I know. If only there was a way to help people prevent cancer before it happened.
My Prevention Prescription
Imagine this. It's 2023 and they invent a new pill. It helps prevent breast cancer. It costs pennies a day. It has no known side effects. It also helps decrease the risk of other cancers and even other chronic diseases. The only catch is that you have to take it everyday. Oh and it tastes awful and is tough to swallow. Would you take it? Remember, absolutely zero side effects. I'm pretty sure that those who have underwent double mastectomy, losing both of their breasts along with everything that makes them a woman, would consider it greatly.
The thing is, we don't yet have that miracle pill. And I don't think we ever will, but there's already something better readily available. You already do it everyday, and you've been doing it since birth. Food! Yes, there are many different types of foods that are shown to reduce the occurrence of breast cancer, the recurrence of breast cancer and the probability of dying from it. These foods act in much the same way as the medication we give to breast cancer survivors so they don't relapse or spread later in life. If you think changing your diet is extreme, then please go talk to a breast cancer survivor, these are officially the strongest and most appreciative patients I've ever met. Even with a diagnosis of breast cancer, they are still mothers and wives and friends and daughters. They keep marching on because they are women, and that's what survivors do.
Using Medical Science To Fight Cancer
Medical research and technology has come a long way and we now have awesome pharmaceutical tools to improve breast cancer survival. They all have very complex mechanisms behind them, but these can all be explained in simple terms. In most instances, about 80% to be precise, when a breast cancer cell forms, it gets fueled by a hormone called estrogen. The estrogen lights a fire in the cancer cell that promotes and drives its growth, mutations and spread, or metastasis, to other parts of the body. Most of our therapies are designed to block estrogen's effects on cancer cells and food can do it too!
Fueling The Fire
Estrogen comes from two pathways, either directly from the ovaries that produce estrogen or from fat tissue. The ovaries will produce estrogen until about your fifties in your average woman. Through a process called menopause (you can read my blog on menopause here), the ovaries shut down and stop producing estrogen. Fat tissue on the other hand is the other site of estrogen production. Fat tissue cells contain an enzyme called aromatase, that makes estrogen out of steroid precursors coming from your adrenal glands. The more fat you have, the more aromatase you have and you guessed it, the more estrogen you make. That's why even post-menopausal women still have some estrogen production. Does this mean that women with obesity tend to have more breast cancer? Exactly. More obesity equals more fat tissue equals more aromatase. To exert its cancer driving effects, estrogen (the key) must attach to its receptor (the lock). So medications can help treat and prevent cancer by exerting their effects on the key itself or by clogging up the lock.
There are three mechanisms by which medications exert their cancer fighting and preventing effects, they either act by reducing the number of keys (estrogen) or by reducing the number of locks (the receptors):
medications can act like estrogen decoys, or estrogen blockers. They act like keys that insert perfectly into the lock, but can't open the door. Examples of these would be SERMs, or selective estrogen receptor modulators. Tamoxifen is the most popular one. It binds to the estrogen receptor and stays there, preventing the circulating estrogen to bind to its receptor. This type of medication is most useful for patients that are not yet menopausal, and still have lots of estrogen floating around in their bloodstreams.
other meds will block aromatase. These are the enzymes in fat tissue cells that help generate more estrogen. Popular ones are Arimidex (anastrozole) or Femara (letrozole). These are most useful in post-menopausal patients, where the bulk of their estrogen is coming from fat tissue and its aromatase enzyme.
another way meds can improve breast cancer survival is by reducing the number of locks, or estrogen receptors. One particular treatment, called faslodex, can block estrogen and also down regulate estrogen receptors, meaning it decreases both the keys and the locks.
Since the main treatment is mastectomy or breast tissue removal, radiation and/or chemotherapy, the goal of medical therapy is to prevent recurrence and metastasis (spread) and to prolong survival. Lucky for cancer patients, these meds work. They have great science backing up their use and should never be ignored. The downside to them is that they have quite a repertoire of unflattering side effects and taking them for 5-10 years isn't too appealing for many. That's why an ounce of prevention might be worth its weight in gold.
Foods That Fight Cancer
Just so happens that we have foods that do exactly the same thing as the meds we use to treat and prevent cancer. In no way am I suggesting that they can replace medications in women fighting this horrible disease, but I’m definitely suggesting that you consider them in prevention or in combination with your current medical therapies. These foods will either exert their effects directly on estrogen (the key), either by acting as a decoy (like SERMs mentioned above) or by blocking its production by blocking aromatase found in fat tissue. Other foods act on the estrogen receptor directly (the lock) by down regulating its production.
Although these foods aren’t as potent as pills, adding them to your routine, meal after meal, day after day, year after year will add up to considerable cancer protection.
The C Word
Millions of cancer cells form in your body every single day. Your immune system, circulating antioxidants and phytochemicals in your blood must seek out, isolate and destroy these cancer cell before they multiply. Our immune systems do drop the ball sometimes. When this happens, cancer cells can multiply. In this scenario, your best chance at survival is hoping that the day this cancer cell goes rogue, is the day where you have high blood levels of antioxidants, phytochemicals, phytoestrogens and other cancer fighting compounds from your diet that can pick up the pieces. Here’s how to get your cancer preventing and fighting capabilities.
Superfoods For Breast Cancer
These foods will act as either 1) estrogen decoys, 2) aromatase inhibitors and 3) receptor down regulators and they are:
Soy foods, like soy milk, soybeans, edamame, tofu and tempeh contain a type of polyphenol called isoflavones. They act like estrogen decoys and have been found to help with menopausal symptoms, fibromas, endometriosis and hormonal cancers. Although there's much misinformation about soy containing foods, these have been debunked a long time ago, but unfortunately their avoidance persists. Try to include soy foods in your daily routine!
Flaxseeds and the lignans they contain are anti-estrogenic and are more readily available if eaten milled or ground. You can easily add them to smoothies or sprinkle them on foods you already eat. Flaxseeds are protective in many health conditions and have been proven to reduce blood pressure. Try to incorporate 1-2 tbsp a day.
Cruciferous and leafy green vegetables, like kale, aragula, collard greens, spinach, brussel sprouts and broccoli are rich in glycosinolates, which are compounds with promising results in trials looking at their chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic effects. These compounds play protective roles in many disease pathways affecting a wide range of pathologic conditions. Momma was right: eat your greens!
Fiber is likely the only nutrient that has gained notoriety for being both the most important and most under-consumed nutrient in western civilization. Fiber is only found in plants. That's right, meat has zero fiber. It's protective against excess hormone exposure, obesity, heart disease and many other diseases, so whichever way you get it, the more the merrier. Recommendations aim for a measly 20-30 grams, but paleolithic research suggests we evolved with diets containing over 70-100 grams per day.
Apples, berries, tomatoes, mushrooms and seaweed have all been found to be protective against breast cancer when consumed in whole form, whereas they don't seem to help if taking their extracts in supplement form. Red grapes contain a potent antioxidant in its skin, called resveratrol that has cancer fighting and anti-estrogenic capabilities that you won't find in as large concentrations in other grape varieties.
Allium foods, including onions, shallots, garlic, leeks and chives have anti-cancer compounds, so try to incorporate them into recipes by either making them the main dish or toppings.
I've already published a full review of turmeric and dedicated a whole article to this potent superfood. You can read more about it here.
Citrus fruits, like oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits contain limonene, and when consumed in its whole food form, seems to have possible anti-estrogenic effects. It is widely extracted from orange peel and used as fragrance or artificial flavor. Their is no good science showing any benefits from using it in extract form.
Whole grains, like 100% whole wheat, barley, quinoa, oat, rye, wild rice, buckwheat, couscous, etc., have cancer fighting potential. Switch your breads and pastas to whole grain forms for a seamless transition to healthier versions of foods you already love!
Cacao powder and amla powder from the Indian gooseberry have also been studied and found to contain potent anti-cancer chemicals. They're relatively easy to add to oatmeal, smoothies or wherever you can hide them.
Green tea is one of the healthiest beverages to have been studied and was found to promote optimal health. The high EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) antioxidant it contains is a super potent compound found in higher concentrations I’m green tea than other tea varieties. Caffeinated green tea has much more antioxidant power than the decaf version, but the healthiest tea is the one you'll consume daily. By adding a squeeze of lemon to your green tea, you boost the absorption of EGCG by a factor of five, so make sure to add some for a tastier and healthier version.
Antioxidants Are The Solution
Although many antioxidants aren't necessary to survive, they're necessary to thrive. A review of over 3000 foods has determined that plants contain over 64 times the amount of antioxidant concentration than meat, dairy and eggs. Pizza and burgers aren't going to protect you against cancer. The inflammatory saturated fat, animal protein, cholesterol, carcinogens, hormones and antibiotics that these foods contain might actually contribute to cancer in the first place. It would take almost 30 slices of pizza to get the same amount of antioxidants found in 1 single cup of blueberries. The antioxidants are the colours in plants, so eat the rainbow. If you eat white onions, then switch to yellow or even better, to red onions to maximize the amount of antioxidants per serving. When it doubt, the more colour the better and we make it a rule in our house to have at least 3 different colors at each meal.
Now if you're thinking "there's no way I can consume all of these foods”, don't worry. My goal was to enumerate all of those that have science backing them up so you can choose some that fit well with your lifestyle. I'd definitely try to prioritize plant variety, while trying to incorporate as much soy, flaxseeds, cruciferous and green leafy vegetables as possible, since these foods have been found to reduce the risk of many chronic illnesses, not just breast cancer. Check out my free recipe eBook, where I try to help you find super quick, healthy and nutritious meals that are completely plant-based, so you can fight cancer one meal at a time. Get it here completely free!
Cancer is no joke and breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women in Canada. You may have had it or had a bad experience with a suspicious lump that ended up being benign. You may have a loved one that has been touched by this horrible disease. Do yourself and them a favor, share this article, talk about it with friends and make a conscious effort to include more cancer fighting foods in your life. No single food will cure cancer, but your overall dietary pattern is the best chance you have against it.
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches! If you're looking for quick, easy and healthy plant-based recipes, check out plantbaseddrjules.com and download my free recipe eBook!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior. I'm a two-time world championship qualified athlete and you can follow my fitness journey there! You can even access the resources section by becoming a member. It's free and there, you can download free resources like my plant-based recipe eBook!
You also check out my YouTube channel here for more tips and tricks on how to embark on a plant-based journey!
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