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A Plant-based Diet as a Breast Cancer Treatment Option

Posted Oct 25 2008 4:48pm

I read an article in Saturday’s Portland Press Herald about U.S. Rep. Tom Allen’s (D-Maine) wife Diana just being diagnosed with breast cancer. Dr. Marsha O’Rourke, medical director of the breast-health program at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Lewiston, told the paper that knowing the stage of a cancer is key to choosing a treatment option. The article refers to the American Cancer Society Web site, which notes that “Most women with breast cancer undergo surgery” and that “surgery is often combined with other treatments such as radiation therapy, hormone therapy and/or biologic therapy.”

I hope to one day soon see dietary therapy alongside these treatment options ... on the top of the list for prevention and treatment of breast cancer. Allow me to explain, with plenty of important scientific data (and personal experience) to back up this assertion:

Lower the fat and animal food content of your diet and live longer.
Women who eat a plant-based diet live longer than those who eat more animal foods. This is just one of the findings that have come out of the research of Dr. James Herbert and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Herbert showed that diet greatly influences whether a breast cancer will recur, or reappear, after it has been forced into remission after treatment.

The study, published in the journal Breast Cancer Treatment (September 1998) found that consumption of foods high in fat, including dairy products, was associated with shorter survival among women with breast cancer. Butter, beef, liver and bacon are especially dangerous, Herbert found. Pre-menopausal women with breast cancer who ate butter, margarine and lard had a 67 percent greater chance of cancer recurrence than women who abstained from these foods.

On the other hand, women who ate more plant foods tended to live longer. Simply eating more vegetables each day was associated with lower rates of recurrence, Herbert found. The women who ate the most vegetables had the fewest occurrences and lived the longest, while those who ate the fewest had the shortest survival on average. Post-menopausal women who ate broccoli, collard greens, kale and citrus fruit lived longer than those who abstained from these foods. Each additional 100 milligrams of vitamin C over the amount eaten on the standard diet reduced the risk of recurrence by 43 percent.

Reduce excess calories to increase your chances of recovery.
Another UMass study in the Journal of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment (February 1999) found that women who ate an additional 1,000 calories above their optimal calorie levels experience an 84 percent increase in the risk of recurrence.  It’s easy to get 1,000 extra calories by eating a few processed foods each day. On the other hand, whole foods — such as whole grains, fresh vegetables, beans and fruit — are low in calories. A diet made up mostly of these foods is a low-calorie diet.

The reason that calories are important is that the higher the calories, the higher the insulin levels and the greater the weight gain. Insulin is the hormone produced by your pancreas to make blood sugar available to your cells. Cells use blood sugar as their primary fuel. The more processed foods you eat the higher your insulin levels. And the higher your insulin levels the greater your risk of recurrence. Many scientists now believe this combination — high-calorie diet, overweight, and high insulin, now referred to as syndrome X — is the underlying cause of much of the breast cancer we see today.

Estrogen and breast cancer
Estrogen can act like a growth hormone. The larger and more numerous the fat cells, the more estrogen a woman’s body produces. Estrogen can trigger the over-production of tissue and inflammation inside the breast and uterus. This combination can block the milk ducts and the blood and lymph vessels within the breast causing waste products to stagnate, creating conditions for fibrocystic breasts and breast cancer.

To keep your estrogen levels low, eat a high-fiber diet.  Fiber acts like a sponge. It soaks up excess estrogen and eliminates it through the feces. High-fiber diets speed intestinal transit and promote elimination, thus keeping the blood and lymph cleaner – which in turn keeps your breast tissue cleaner. Fiber is the reason that vegetarian women who eat lots of plant foods eliminate two to three times more estrogen than than non-vegetarians, according to a study published in The New England Journal Of Medicine (1982).

Plants are rich in healing compounds that fight cancer.
For the person combating a serious illness, the macrobiotic diet is an ideal cancer-fighting diet. It is low in fat, rich in fiber, and abundant in cancer- fighting chemicals. The diet is composed primarily of whole grains, fresh vegetables, beans, sea vegetables, soups, condiments and fruit and some fish. Macrobiotic proponents encourage people to eat only organic foods, especially if you are attempting to overcome a serious illness. These foods, scientists have found, boost the body’s healing forces, and directly fight cancer.

The vegetables that appear most protective are the cruciferous variety, namely broccoli, cabbage,  collard greens, kale, mustard greens and watercress. These contain the substance sulforanphane, which promotes detoxification of the blood and tissues and helps fight cancer. Another substance is phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC), which may inhibit the emergence of lung tumors in animals that have been bred to create cancerous tumors. Plants contain antioxidants, an antidote for oxidization the underlying cause of most illness we see today, including breast cancer.

There are thousands of antioxidants, though most of us know only the most commonly reported which are vitamin C, E and beta carotene. Plant foods are the primary source of all antioxidants. Without these, your risks of cancer rises dramatically, according to Bruce Ames, Ph.D. professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a longtime researcher. Dr. Ames says that people who eat fewer than five servings of antioxidant-rich foods each day experience twice the risk of developing cancer than those who get five servings. Researchers have found that the body’s primary cancer fighter, natural killer cells, are boosted in number and aggressiveness when anti-oxidant rich foods are eaten. The Chinese, for example, eat a diet based primarily on grains and vegetables and they have lower rates of the common cancers, especially breast cancer. Two other groups of chemicals in plant foods known as carotenoids are also powerful cancer fighters.

Avoid poisons at all costs.
Organic agriculture uses no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Pesticides and other environmental pollutants can cause many of the common cancers , including breast cancer. The Centers For Disease Control has found that Americans now carry 100 different synthetic chemicals in their fat cells and tissues and 45 are proven carcinogens. Atrazine and dioxin have been shown to have estrogen-like effects on cells, directly promoting tumors in the breast. Researchers at Berkeley found that dioxin levels accumulated over the years, over a certain threshold, more than double the risk of breast cancer.


I predict that within the next 10 years ... plant-based nutrition will be commonly recommended for long-term breast cancer survival.

As we see, it takes a long time for the science to get translated into treatment options. Though we have much scientific evidence about plant-based diet and good health, these treatment options are not commonly being recommended by our doctors. I’m very fortunate to have heard about this option nine years ago when I was diagnosed with advanced invasive breast cancer. Had I not found out about this, I am certain I would not be alive and healthy today.

More people need to have this information, as it is a key piece of the cancer “puzzle.” Plant-based nutrition could increase the chances of long-term survival for so many more people!

Want to learn more? Please peruse my archives, and ... I highly recommend reading The China Study, by T. Co linCampbell, a Cornell researcher in nutritional biochemistry who has done so much to raise awareness about the positive effects of plant-based diets. He conducted 40 years' worth of government-funded research about this vital link between diet and health.

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