Last December, a very close person called me out of the blue. We generally don’t call each other unexpectedly, so I feared that something was amiss. Indeed – she had just found out that she had breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the most frequently occurring cancer in the EU. In Ireland, breast cancer incidence is of 16,5 cases per 10,000 women/year (1). It is estimated that in the EU, each woman has a 1 in 7 chance of developing breast cancer at some stage during her lifetime. While it can appear at any age, the 45–65-year range is usually the one with the most incidence, because it is when hormonal changes linked to perimenopause and menopause appear.
Breast cancer is like a cruel lottery and we can never be sure that it won’t impact ourselves or a loved person. That said, we could be increasing or decreasing our chances of suffering the disease depending on our diet and lifestyle choices.
Some of the factors that are known to increase the risk of breast cancer are:
- Alcohol consumption
- Being overweight or obese
- Not exercising
- High cholesterol
- Insufficient intake of fibre.
Therefore, a healthy diet with a lot of fruit & veg and little or no consumption of fats and processed foods can help you reduce your risk of developing breast cancer, because it contributes to 3 of the above factors: preventing obesity, reducing cholesterol levels and eating a diet rich in fibre.
Such a diet not only helps preventing the risk of developing breast cancer, but it also helps those women who already developed cancer to fight against it and reduce the risk of recurrence. A study with 1500 women diagnosed with cancer found that those who ate 5 daily rations of fruit / veg and exercised for 30 minutes 6 days a week had half the risk of dying in the first 2 years compared with those women who didn’t.
What about HRT?
For menopausal women, HRT has also been known to be associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. The figures vary depending on whether you take oestrogen-only HRT (very low risk) or combined oestrogen and progesterone HRT (slightly higher risk), and on how long you take the treatment (the more years, the highest the risk).
That said, some figures show that this risk is much higher if, in addition to taking HRT, the person regularly drinks alcohol (1 or 2 glasses/day). Therefore, if a woman takes HRT but she doesn’t regularly drink alcohol, that additional risk is very low or moderate. And, in general, not exercising or being overweight is associated with a higher risk of developing breast cancer than taking HRT.
On the other hand, it is now known that HRT reduces the risk of bone fractures due to osteoporosis. And according to some studies, it may also reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer.
Therefore, every woman needs to carefully assess the pros and cons of taking HRT. She must also be aware that the increased risk of developing breast cancer due to HRT is much lower than the risk of developing it due to a sedentary lifestyle or an unhealthy diet. Hence, if you suffer severe menopause symptoms and you are considering whether to take HRT, you might also want to contemplate if you exercise enough or if you eat a healthy diet, because the risk of not doing so is higher than the risk of taking HRT.
There are many different types of HRT nowadays. If you decide to use it, talk to your GP about which one may be suitable for you taking into account your medical history, your family history and your lifestyle.
If you are approaching or going through menopause, I can recommend the Balance app (1) by Dr Louise Newson, which contains a lot of information and helps you track your symptoms and take appropriate decisions.
In the meantime, here’s a list of some foods that help reduce the risk of developing any type of cancer. They contain certain molecules (such as lycopene, curcumin, gingerol…) that have been recognised by the scientific community as particularly powerful against cancer:
- Green tea
- Soy beans
- Oyster mushrooms.
With regard to that person close to me who has breast cancer, she is responding well to her treatment so far. Hopefully, she’ll be fine in no time.
(1) Disclaimer: Please note that I am not affiliated with the Balance app or website. I simply mention it for information purposes. If you decide to use it, it is at your own discretion.