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Very recently someone near and dear to me had a breast cancer scare. My entire family rejoiced when her biopsy results came back benign—but had she not been so fortunate this would have been her second battle with breast cancer.
As the buzz of the good news subsided I began to think of my own breast health. I’m still a ways off from the age when the majority of breast cancer cases occur (50+)—and there are factors that up my risk of breast cancer that I can’t control, like family history, getting older and (ahem!) being a woman—but there are lifestyle changes I can make now to tip the odds in my favor in the years ahead.
Staying lean and moving more are at the top of my list, because one of the most important ways to reduce breast cancer risk is to avoid gaining weight, according to a review article in the journal Cancer. And other research has found that regular, strenuous exercise may help lower risk too. (Start losing weight today with this 28-Day Diet Meal Plan to Lose 8 Pounds This Month.)
But what I eat plays a role, too, as Holly Pevzner reported when she interviewed Cheryl L. Rock, Ph.D., R.D., professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, for the current issue of EatingWell Magazine: “A woman can cut her chance of cancer by as much as two-thirds with good nutrition and weight management,” says Rock. “Even a woman who carries the BRCA1 or 2 gene [two genetic mutations that up a woman’s risk] can reduce her risk.”
I’ll be adding these foods to my grocery cart:
Plums & Peaches. Researchers at Texas A&M recently found that plums and peaches have antioxidant levels to rival “superfood” blueberries—and that they contain two types of polyphenols (antioxidants) that may help kill breast cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact. This is good news, as 180,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year and traditional treatments often harm healthy cells.
Walnuts. Recent research in the journal Nutrition and Cancer suggests walnuts may thwart the growth of breast cancer. In a study out of Marshall University School of Medicine in West Virginia, researchers substituted the equivalent of two ounces of walnuts per day into the diet of one group of mice; the other group was fed a calorically equivalent, but walnut-free, diet. After 34 days, the growth rate of tumors in the walnut eaters was half that of the mice who ate no walnuts. Experts think walnuts’ anti-inflammatory properties—which could come from the omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid, phytosterols or antioxidants—may give them their tumor-fighting potential. One caveat: the study dose of two ounces supplies 370 calories. Still, “walnuts can be part of a healthy diet that can reduce your risk for cancer,” says lead researcher Elaine Hardman, Ph. D.
Broccoli. Sulforaphane—a compound in broccoli—reduced the number of breast cancer stem cells (which cause cancer spread and recurrence) in mice, according to research from the University of Michigan. Eating broccoli may not deliver enough sulforaphane to achieve the same effect, but to get the most you can, eat your broccoli raw or briefly steam or stir-fry the green florets. (Boiling destroys some of the sulforaphane.)
Salmon. Taking fish-oil supplements for at least 10 years can shrink your risk of ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer, according to a study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. It’s thought that the omega-3 fats in fish oil reduce inflammation, which may contribute to breast cancer. But you can skip the supplement aisle, say the study’s researchers, and eat about 8 ounces of oily fish (salmon, sardines, tuna) a week.
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Olive Oil. Another reason to reach for extra-virgin olive oil: when researchers in Barcelona gave rats with breast cancer a diet in which fat came predominantly from extra-virgin olive oil (versus corn oil), they found that the olive oil’s antioxidants and oleic acid (a mono-unsaturated fat) quelled growth of malignant cells. (Find out where olive oil ranks among the 2 best oils for cooking and 2 worst oils.)
Parsley. University of Missouri scientists found that this herb can actually inhibit cancer-cell growth. Animals that were given apigenin, a compound abundant in parsley (and in celery), boosted their resistance to developing cancerous tumors. Experts recommend adding a couple pinches of minced fresh parsley to your dishes daily.
Coffee. Drinking about two 12-ounce coffees a day may lower your risk of an aggressive form of breast cancer, says a May 2011 study in Breast Cancer Research. “One possibility is that coffee’s antioxidants protect cells from damage that can lead to cancer,” says study author Jingmei Li, Ph.D. More research is needed, so don’t up your intake based on these findings just yet. (If you already are a coffee drinker, here are 4 reasons to not quit your coffee “habit,” and 4 cons to consider.)
Beans. According to a new report, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, upping your fiber intake may help lower your risk of breast cancer—and the more you eat, the more your risk decreases. The researchers found that for every 10 grams of fiber a woman added to her daily diet, her risk of breast cancer decreased by 7 percent. That’s about a 1/2 to one cup of beans, depending on the variety. Other foods packed with fiber include barley, bulgur, lentils, peas, artichokes, dates and raspberries.