This topic is near and dear to me (like prostate cancer) because my beautiful cousin died at age 38 from this disease. Even with all the money that has been devoted to cancer research and treatment, most cases cannot be tracked to a particular cause. Age is one of the biggest risk factors, and genetics play a strong role as well.
The good news is that research has quite clearly shown that exercising and maintaining a normal weight/waist size (especially after menopause) are two of the best ways to prevent this disease. So —you know I’m going to say it—heart healthy = breast healthy! The smartest thing a woman can do to reduce her risk of breast cancer is to reduce her risk of cardiovascular disease to as close to zero as possible.
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer can occur in various structures within the breast, but especially the milk ducts and glands. It’s the second most common cancer (after skin cancer) in women; approximately 1 percent of cases occur in men. While there may be no early signs, common symptoms once a tumor takes hold include puckering or dimpling of the breast; a fixed, painless nodule or lump (although there can be pain and tenderness); unusual nipple discharge or a change in appearance of the nipple; and redness or a change in color of the breast.
Risk factors include:
- Age (risk increases as you get older)
- Benign breast disease (hyperplasia, or extra cells, increases risk)
- Breast density (the denser the tissue, the higher the risk)
- Early menstruation (before 12) and late menopause (after 55); menstruation
- involves regular hormonal stimulation, which can encourage the growth of abnormal breast cells
- Family history, especially if it involves early diagnosis (fifties or younger)
- Genes (5 to 10 percent of cases can be traced to a gene, such as BRCA1 and
- Giving birth later (giving birth before age 30, especially, might normalize breast cells and lower risk)
- Height (the taller you are, the higher the risk, perhaps due to greater exposure to growth factors at earlier ages)
- Jewish ethnicity (those of Ashkenazi or European descent have a higher risk, probably due to gene mutations)
- Postmenopausal obesity
Natural Remedies For Treating Breast Cancer
1. (tie) American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) 2,000 milligrams a day (1,000 milligrams around breakfast and 1,000 milligrams around lunch) for at least 2 months, especially right before or during cancer treatment for cancer-related fatigue
Ginseng may reduce the inflammatory process associated with cancer, which in turn impacts cortisol levels and reduces stress and fatigue.
In a very well-done Mayo Clinic–directed study (contrary to what some “experts” in alternative medicine suggest, most of the best medical centers in the United States embrace evidence-based dietary supplements) with 364 cancer patients at different stages of treatment, participants took either 2,000 milligrams of Wisconsin ginseng, a common type of American ginseng, or a placebo. (Approximately 60 percent of the participants had breast cancer.)
By the end of the first month, both groups were experiencing a reduction in cancer-related fatigue. After about 2 months, twice as many ginseng patients reported a decrease in fatigue. Side effects were similar to a placebo. After further analysis, patients receiving radiation or chemotherapy had significantly better results at 4 and 8 weeks with the ginseng compared to the placebo. People who were just starting conventional treatment—and perhaps didn’t have as much fatigue yet— responded better than those who were further on in the process (who would be expected to have more severe fatigue).
As a result, researchers speculated that ginseng could be better for preventing fatigue—or keeping it from getting worse—than for treating severe fatigue. (As I was preparing this section, a preliminary clinical trial from MD Anderson Cancer Center found similar benefits in cancer patients with Panax ginseng at similar dosages.)
The ginseng used consisted of pure ground root from one production lot (manufactured by Beehive Botanicals) and contained 3 percent ginsenosides, which researchers believe are the active ingredients. Most ginseng products on the market have at least 3 percent; some go as high as 50 percent. The higher the concentration of ginsenosides, the lower the dose you should start with. The same research group at the Mayo Clinic saw some benefits for cancer-related fatigue at 1,000 milligrams per day with a 5 percent ginsenoside product in a previous clinical trial.
It’s so encouraging that there were no side effects beyond what the placebo group experienced, and American ginseng has been found to have no strong drug interactions so far either. One interesting thing to keep in mind: The researchers at the Mayo Clinic made it clear that certain extraction properties (the purifying process to isolate the active ingredient) with ginseng and its ginsenosides could theoretically disrupt treatment.
For example, ginseng from methanol extraction may have some estrogenic properties, which could be harmful for some breast cancer patients. Ginseng derived from water extraction or from pure ground root has not demonstrated estrogenic characteristics, and it may even have cancer cell–inhibiting properties. Regardless, discuss this with your doctor ASAP because there is currently no safe, effective pharmaceutical option for cancer- related fatigue (just a lot of off-label stimulants).
1. (tie) Ginger (Zingiber officinale) 500 to 1,000 milligrams 3 days before receiving chemotherapy and 3 days after chemotherapy (repeat at next cycle) for chemotherapy-induced nausea along with conventional drug treatment for nausea
Researchers believe ginger might prepare the gut for chemotherapy-induced nausea by sending a message to the brain to ignore the nausea.
This is only a theory, but I agree with it. Arguably, the best study was done by the University of Rochester Cancer Center and the National Cancer Institute’s Community Clinical Oncology Program, which is known as URCC CCOP. In this study of 576 patients (93 percent female), participants took a purified liquid extract of ginger root with 8.5 milligrams of concentrated combined gingerol, zingerone, and shogaol, equivalent to 250 milligrams of ginger root, in extra virgin olive oil (made by Aphios Corporation).
Almost 75 percent were being treated for breast cancer (others had gastrointestinal or lung cancers). Ginger reduced nausea 40 percent more than the placebo. Higher dosages (2,000 milligrams a day) did not work better than lower dosages (1,000 milligrams). Side effects are rare with ginger but can include heartburn, bruising/flushing, and rash. Note: There is some preliminary evidence that consuming a high-protein diet with ginger could potentially be even more beneficial for nausea. (See the Nausea and Vomiting section.)
2. Guarana (Paullinia cupana) 50 milligrams twice a day for cancer-related fatigue and various other symptoms
This plant from the Amazon River basin has been used as a stimulant for ages because it contains caffeine, but it also has a high saponin and tannin content, which may also contribute to reducing fatigue and improving focus. The most famous study with cancer-related fatigue and guarana was done in Brazil.
Researchers used a standardized extract with a 6.46 percent caffeine content (not much) and 1.7 percent tannin content. Essentially, patients in this study received only about 5 milligrams of caffeine a day from guarana (a standard cup of coffee has 50 to 100 milligrams).
More than 70 patients took either a 50-milligram supplement or a placebo for 3 weeks, then took nothing for a week, and then crossed over to the other group (placebo subjects took the supplement and vice versa). After 21 days, half of the guarana patients reported significantly reduced fatigue compared to about 10 percent of the placebo group.
Most other trials have also used guarana with a fairly low caffeine content. When I (and others) have tried it, the effects seem to go beyond what you’d expect with just caffeine; it doesn’t make you jittery, and it allows you to maintain your concentration and focus. Instead of a roller-coaster effect—with higher energy and then a crash—it’s more of a consistent merry-go-round feel.
This is why guarana is also being studied for other symptoms of breast cancer treatment, such as depression and the memory, mood, and attention disruptions associated with so-called chemo brain. While the participants in the breast cancer (and most) studies did not report anxiety and insomnia (as you might expect with products containing caffeine), I wouldn’t take it in the late afternoon because it could be too stimulating for some people.
3. Calcium up to 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams a day and vitamin D 600 to 800 IU a day or enough to normalize the 25-OH vitamin D blood test (30 to 40 ng/mL)
Bone loss is a major problem with many breast cancer treatments, and calcium and vitamin D have been a part of almost every successful clinical study of an osteoporosis drug for bone loss. They maximize the effects of these drugs. Even if you don’t need an osteoporosis medication, calcium and vitamin D can still support bone health. And you don’t necessarily need to take them in supplement form: There is so much calcium in various food and beverages today that it’s easy to get your daily 1,000- to 1,200-milligram dose from diet alone.
The Institute of Medicine recommends 600 to 800 IU of vitamin D a day (many of the low-dose multivitamins have 400 to 1,000 IU per pill), but every breast cancer patient should get a 25-OH vitamin D test to check for any profound D deficiency (less than 10 ng/mL), which would require higher doses.
Vitamin D3 (usually derived from an animal source) and vitamin D2 (plant source) supplements are both effective; the human body makes vitamin D3 when exposed to sunlight, and it’s the form that has been used in more clinical trials, so it may be slightly more potent. In reality, I think both are fine.
There is a lot of talk about calcium and especially vitamin D to reduce breast cancer risk, but the data is weak. It’s not weak in the area of preventing bone loss and arthralgia, though, which is important especially when one of the primary and most effective treatments in breast cancer is to eliminate estrogen or reduce the effects of it.
Estrogen is the primary hormone responsible for maintaining or improving bone mineral density; when you take it away or decrease the effects of it, bone loss accelerates. There’s also concern over calcium and heart disease risk, but this is more for people who get more than 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day. Finally, calcium and vitamin D results may even be more profound when combined with resistance exercise (always check with your doctor to make sure this is allowed during or after treatment). Synergy!
4. Diosmin or oxerutin
Diosmin or oxerutin (rutin), both types of flavonoids, may be beneficial for severe lymphedema (see the Varicose Veins and Chronic Venous Insufficiency section and the Hemorrhoids section). Lymphedema of the arms after breast cancer treatment is a major problem, and there really aren’t any good conventional or alternative solutions, with the exception of specialized massage therapy. However, an older study of women with breast cancer who took 1,000 milligrams a day (in two 500-milligram doses) of diosmin for 6 months showed it may improve lymphatic drainage and swelling. I think it has more promise as a preventive therapy than as a treatment; it’s worth discussing with your doctor, regardless.
Oxerutin, a cousin of diosmin, is also used for varicose veins and hemorrhoids. When taken for 6 months (up to 3,000 milligrams a day), it could reduce swelling, immobility, and discomfort from lymphedema caused by breast cancer treatment.
What Are Useless For Treating Breast Cancer?
No supplement has consistently worked for reducing hot flashes in breast cancer patients, but I had my fingers crossed for this because it is inexpensive and had shown preliminary promise. (It’s also being studied for other hot f lash–related symptoms, such as fatigue and sweating.) The biggest problem with any hot flash remedy is that the placebo response rate is consistently high, so it’s difficult for anything to beat it on a consistent basis. Study results just came out on this, and it failed to beat the placebo. Of course, since it worked as well as placebo and is safe, you could try it if you wanted to.
L-carnitine and CoQ10 have not been able to reduce fatigue in cancer patients better than a placebo; soy pills and most others do not reduce hot flashes more than a placebo in breast cancer; horse chestnut seed extract does not appear to reduce lymphedema; and taking higher doses of folic acid (more than 400 micrograms) is unnecessary and could interfere with some breast cancer treatments and encourage breast cancer growth.
What Lifestyle Changes Can Help With Breast Cancer?
Heart healthy = breast healthy!
The most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of breast cancer, especially after menopause, is to avoid gaining weight or to try to drop pounds if you’re overweight.
Exercise—both aerobic and resistance training—is extremely important as well (it can reduce both your risk of breast cancer and the risk of recurrence after treatment). Premenopausal women who are heavy have a slightly lower risk of breast cancer, and they tend to have lower levels of estrogen for reasons that are not clear.
As you get older, though, the main source of estrogen is fat cells; the more fat cells you have, the more estrogen you can make, and many breast cancers grow better with estrogen around. Being overweight or obese also increases your risk of colon, endometrial, esophageal, gall bladder, kidney, liver, pancreatic, thyroid, and probably ovarian and other cancers.
According to the Women’s Intervention Nutrition Study (WINS)—which was the first large, randomized trial to investigate dietary changes and breast cancer recurrence in postmenopausal women—it would take 38 women adopting a more heart-healthy lifestyle to prevent one recurrence of breast cancer.
I realize these aren’t great odds (that’s a 2.6 percent chance of benefiting), but following a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle helps everyone (100 percent) win by lowering the risk of heart and multiple other diseases, improving quality of life, and reducing side effects from cancer treatment.
If you do have to take them, use a low dose and only for a short time. In studies, hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, increased the risk of cardiovascular events and showed a negative impact on memory and other mental abilities. It also decreased the risk of colon cancer and hip fractures.
In the years after these results came out, hormone sales dropped almost 40 percent. A couple of years after that, breast cancer rates dropped about 11 percent in postmenopausal women—the first time they had significantly fallen since 1945! There was a huge drop in estrogen-positive tumors as well. Weight gain and hormones may account for half of breast cancer deaths, based on the Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard. The good news: The risk from HRT drops quickly after women go off it.
Even in moderation, drinking slightly raises breast cancer risk as well as the risk of mouth, throat, voice box, and gastrointestinal cancers.
Alcohol also acts like weak estrogen, stimulating cancer cell growth and suppressing immune function.
Add some seeds
What Else to Know About Treating Breast Cancer?
I think the controversy surrounding breast cancer screening (that is, doing it less often)—similar to prostate, thyroid, and some other screenings—is somewhat justified. There is clear evidence that some of the tumors caught by tests will not progress and be fatal; some could even naturally regress.
There is no question that screening saves lives, but that’s not the issue. The issue is how many individuals will be harmed by potentially saving a single life. I think the screening debate is ultimately healthy because it will force us to spend more money on research to determine who benefits from screening and under what circumstances. Regardless, you should discuss your options with the doctor you trust the most.