Let’s Talk Boobs
Ask a hundred different women about their boobs - how they would describe them, what they mean to them and which bits they like about them, and you’ll get one hundred different answers.
Boobs are like that, highly personal and while some would rather hide them away under swathes of baggy clothes, others prefer them proudly on display. Some love their boobs, imperfections, and all; others have secret or open longings to change them.
Some women, following breast cancer surgery are relieved to be rid of them, because removal, meant a chance of continuing life. Others mourn their bosoms post mastectomy and feel traumatised, almost, beyond repair.
Ultimately, our relationship with our breasts is as individual as we are. Big, medium, or small; even or uneven, there, or not there.
Here, we go behind the scenes about boobs. If you have already experienced a diagnosis and had treatment for breast cancer, it may not at first feel relevant but read on if you can, because it may change the way you do things moving forward or the advice you give to your daughters, nieces, young friends, and relatives about how we all take care of our boobs, today, tomorrow, and long into the future.
Arguably, living in a world packed with environmental pollutants and processed foods brimming with extra energy not to mention additives and pesticide residues, looking after our boobs through looking at what we consume, has never been such a collective necessity.
This is because ground-breaking thinking by cutting edge scientists is helping us understand that while10 to 30 per cent of breast cancer cases are out of our control, of those remaining, many can be heavily influenced by things we can directly influence.
Whether that’s thinking carefully about alcohol intake, changing household cleaning products or switching from mainstream to organic food, drinks, cosmetics, and personal beauty products, we now have more scope to alter breast cancer destiny for ourselves and future generations, than we may have imagined or could have hoped. Here we share are eight, key points to consider.
1 Cosmetics, Beauty Products and Cleaning Products
The charity Breast Cancer UK is dedicated to the prevention of breast cancer. One of their key approaches is helping us to understand the role played by our daily and accumulative exposure to harmful chemicals found in our environment, food, and everyday beauty products, which specifically interfere with our ‘endocrine system’.
Our endocrine system is a collection of glands and organs, which secrete hormones and other messengers into our bloodstream and includes for instance, our adrenal glands, which pump out adrenalin at times of stress and our thyroid gland which makes thyroxine to help control body weight.
It also involves organs and tissues that make and control levels of the hormone’s oestrogen, progesterone, and androgens, which are involved in our reproductive cycles and the health of breast tissue.
Chemicals that interrupt these hormones are known as ‘endocrine disruptors’ because they can interfere with and mimic natural hormones like oestrogen in our bodies.
Over 1,400 compounds are suspected or known to be endocrine disruptors, according to Breast Cancer UK, and they can be found in a wide variety of places. Phthalates are a type of plasticiser for example, used in plastics, flooring and some personal care products. They can get into our bodies by being present in what we eat and drink. They can be inhaled from the air or absorbed via our skin from cosmetics and body creams and lotions. A number are now banned from use but some such as parabens, triclosan and ultraviolet filters used in personal care products and sun creams are still widely in use.
Experts, including scientists from the Breast Cancer and the Environment Program, funded in part by the National Cancer Institute in America, believe that we are most susceptible to endocrine disruptors that mimic human oestrogen, and may play a role in the development of breast cancer, at certain ‘windows’ in our lives, when breast tissue is developing.
These vulnerable moments include pregnancy when for instance, exposure to DDT, a chemical pesticide that can contaminate water, soil, and fish, during pregnancy may alter genes leading to an increased chance of developing breast cancer in the daughters of those women. The windows also include pregnancy for the mother to be, during the menopause and puberty.
Scientists also point out for example, that exposures to common contaminants in the environment may change the timing of puberty. For example, girls exposed to high levels of the chemical triclosan, used in antimicrobial soaps, appear to develop breasts earlier and affect the timing of menarche, which is relevant given early puberty is a risk factor for breast cancer in later life.
The million-dollar question is what we can do to help reduce our toxic load. It is difficult for researchers to say conclusively that swapping from standard to organic beauty products such as make-up, cleansers, and body creams; nail varnishes, body washes and shampoo, not to forget sun creams will definitely reduce risk of breast cancer because long-term studies have not been carried out and you must ask, if ethical anyway.
What we can say is that making such swaps will certainly reduce exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals over a lifespan, and this may help to lower overall risk of breast cancer. The same arguably, can be said for switching to organic and minimally processed food to lower intakes of pesticides, additives and toxins created during certain ultra-processing techniques.
Looking carefully at what we eat, day to day, month by month, year in and year out is important too, because there is evidence, say scientists in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, that across genetic types and menopausal status, following eight basic nutritional recommendations is associated with breast cancer prevention throughout our life cycle starting from the earliest critical period while in the womb.
Scientists are beginning to understand that this life-time approach to positive nutrition can affect both prevention of breast cancer as well as modifying the pathway against disease recurrence, to improve survival and quality of life if breast cancer has already been diagnosed and treated.
Central to these nutritional recommendations are eating in way that causes a slow release of energy (low glycaemic index diet), including nutritious plant-based foods and having low intakes of animal foods, especially processed and red meat. Low intakes of alcohol as well as an appropriate energy intake are also both key.
Opting for foods rich in fibre, both the soluble fibre found in pulses and oats and the undigestible forms in wholegrain foods is also important. As researchers from Israel point out, fibre intake has been linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer with every additional 10g of fibre eaten each day, possibly because it affects hormone levels, feelings of hunger and the production of compounds in the gut with direct, anti-cancer properties.
Upping our vegetables is also important as doing so may decrease the risk of oestrogen receptor breast cancer by dampening down oestrogen activity. Particularly important are those bursting with bright colourful red, orange, and yellow pigments like tomatoes, carrots, spinach, and broccoli for example.
When you delve down further it seems that making sure that we have plenty of calcium in our diets, may also reduce risk of breast cancer. Low fat dairy foods are an easy win for calcium but so too are dairy milk alternatives, if fortified with this mineral.
There is the suggestion too, that soybeans and foods made from them may offer protection. When scientists have studied this theory in laboratories, rather confusingly, they have discovered that individual active compounds in soya called isoflavones may stimulate breast cancer growth. However, when studying women in Asian countries who eat high amounts of soy products, over long periods, doing so shows a protective or neutral effect, suggesting isoflavones eaten within soya foods, is both safe and potentially protective. Probiotics and other products of fermentation found in yogurt may also be beneficial in helping to reduce breast cancer risk.
When we look around the world, eating patterns found in traditional Mediterranean cultures, the Japanese Okinawan pattern of eating and the DASH diet, which is popular in America, seem to follow these criteria most closely - while also being the easiest to follow.
Low levels of vitamin D (below 25 nanomoles per litre) have been found in people with breast cancer. In the UK, across the population approximately 1 in 5 people fall into the category. Researchers are unclear whether a low level of vitamin D increases risk, or whether breast cancer itself causes vitamin D levels to drop. Either way, the Department of Health advises us all to take 10 microgram of vitamin D daily and some of us to continue supplement all year round.
An area where researchers feel on more solid ground is alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk, which becomes significant at levels as low as three to six units per week. This risk holds true whether consumed in earlier or later life and is thought to contribute to around 4,400 cases of breast cancer every year in the UK alone.
This could be because alcohol may increase oestrogen levels, which affects your risk of developing breast cancer. Also, alcohol is broken down into by-products which can damage cells and cause DNA mutations which may lead to breast cancer. Whether it is wine or vodka, gin, or prosecco, it is the alcohol in these drinks that increase breast cancer risk.
Looking at groups of women and their exercising habits over time reveals those with a family history of being physically active for seven or more hours a week, are associated with reduced breast cancer risk, both pre and post menopause.
Smoking tobacco introduced chemicals including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known to trigger breast cancer, especially in younger women who have started smoking early and not reached the menopause.
While research in this area is hard to conduct in humans and much of the work takes place in the laboratory on tissue cultures, a fascinating piece of research called The Sister Study, which looked at the lifestyles of over 50,000 sisters from America and Puerto Rico reveals that women who live in areas of higher levels of lead, mercury, and cadmium air pollution, have a greater chance of developing breast cancer, post-menopause compared to their sister living in less polluted areas.
Such data helps us to understand how small lifestyle changes can matter. Trying for example to lower exposure to air pollution by exercising and walking away from main roads, investing in house plants, keeping carpets clean and avoiding spray-based cleaning products and strong solvents can all help to lower our overall exposure to air pollutants in general, some of which are linked with changes to breast tissue.
Non-Malignant Breast Lumps
Not all breast lumps are cancerous. Some can be down to the growth of non-cancerous tissue called ‘fibroadenomas’ or to the build-up of fluid, which triggers the development of cysts.
A doctor can advise on the best course of action if non-malignant lumps are diagnosed but often ‘no treatment’ is the active decision that is taken from a medical perspective. This leaves women wondering how to take things into their own hands to help make things better. Previous research has shown that taking evening primrose oil, may help and for a while, in the UK, it was on prescription for this condition. Meanwhile, in China researchers have observed that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce risk of fibroadenoma.
The general advice to follow a healthy and balanced style of eating, which delivers a wide variety of a vitamins and minerals, and a slow and steady supply of energy is also well worth considering since overall breast health is likely to benefit, as well potentially, benign changes to breast tissue.
As we move through the years, our skin naturally loses some of its tone and elasticity. The results are clearly visible on our face, as fine wrinkles and lines develop and skin loses its plumpness. The same is true of the skin and the underlying support structures in our breasts, with the combination of this loss of tone and elasticity over time, combining with gravity to cause tissues to stretch and breasts to sag.
Helping to keep our skin healthy both on the outside as well as the from the inside may help to slow down this natural consequence of ageing. Using a good quality ‘clean’ sunscreen, which is free from known harmful environmental pollutants, and reducing time exposed to the sun are two important starting points when looking after the delicate skin on our décolletage.
So too is applying body cream and serum, which are packed with potent antioxidants, that can help to counter the damaging, ageing effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays while also eating antioxidants within a wide selection of vegetables, fruits and drinks such as black and green tea.
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,
Associateship King's College (AKC)