The Link Between Breast Cancer and Diet
Breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, after skin cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are over 264,000 breast cancer diagnoses each year. While genetics are a contributing factor in developing breast cancer, lifestyle choices, such as diet and alcohol consumption, can also play a role.
This article will explain what breast cancer is, how diet impacts health, and the impact of drinking alcohol on developing breast cancer.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of this disease, caused by abnormal cells in breast tissue. While men can develop breast cancer, the condition predominantly affects women.
According to the American Cancer Society, a lump, cyst, or tumor in the breast is defined as malignant or cancerous when it begins to invade surrounding tissues. Without treatment, breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body and may lead to death.
The type of breast cancer someone is diagnosed with is determined by the specific cells that become cancer, and whether the cancer has spread or not. These types include:
- Ductal carcinoma.
- Lobular carcinoma.
- Ductal carcinoma in situ.
- Invasive breast cancer (ILC or IDC), including triple negative breast cancer and inflammatory breast cancer.
- Paget disease of the breast.
- Phyllodes tumor.
Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms
While breast cancer typically manifests as a lump in the breast, a change to the skin in certain areas of the breast or a painful area, not all types cause these symptoms. Other symptoms that may indicate breast cancer include:
- Thickening in one area of the breast.
- Change in size or shape of breast.
- Dimpling in the skin on the breast.
- Inverted nipple that was not there before.
- Bleeding from the nipple.
- Peeling, scaling, crusting, or flaking of the areola, or the pigmented skin around the nipple.
- Redness or pitting of the skin on the breast, making it look similar to an orange’s skin.
- Unexplainable pain in part of the breast.
How Many Women Are Impacted by Breast Cancer?
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer diagnosis rates have continued to increase year over year, while mortality rates declined. This is due in part to a better medical understanding of where and how the cancer begins, so the disease can be diagnosed and treated faster; other factors involve understanding how lifestyle and environment impact cancer risk.
In 2022, the American Cancer Society reported:
- 287,850 new cases of invasive breast cancer.
- 51,400 new cases of DCIS.
- 83% of breast cancer diagnoses are in women aged 50 and older.
While there are factors that a woman cannot control, like genetics or family history, there are several lifestyle factors she can control to reduce her risk of cancer. This is especially important in women who have risk factors that are out of their control. One of the biggest, most easily controlled risk factors is diet. Unhealthy foods and alcohol put a woman at higher risk for breast cancer, along with other diseases like diabetes or heart disease.
Dietary Choices and Cancer Risk
Research has indicated that what women eat can influence the risk of developing breast cancer. In particular, women who ate a diet that consisted mainly of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains were found to have a reduced risk of developing breast cancer.
Most physicians recommend focusing on a plant-based diet, with vegetables, fruits, and whole grains as the center of each meal. Legumes, nuts, and beans are important sources of protein, fiber, minerals, and healthy fats. Eating less red meat, high-fat meat, salt, and processed food will reduce the risk of many diseases, including any kind of cancer.
There is some concern about eating a lot of soy products, due to isoflavones (plant-based compounds that can mimic hormones like estrogen). However, studies have not found a correlation between eating a lot of soy, especially if one is a vegetarian or vegan, and an increased risk of developing or returning breast cancer. Dietary supplements are also not associated with any increased benefit or risk, although they can exacerbate existing medical conditions or interfere with medications.
Any dietary concerns should be discussed with a medical professional, but sticking to a healthy diet, exercise plan, and weight will reduce the overall risk of breast cancer.
Weight and Breast Cancer Risk
Eating primarily plant-based food helps to maintain healthy weight. Being overweight or obese, especially after menopause, increases one’s breast cancer risk.
Prior to menopause, the ovaries produce estrogen, which may be stored in the fat cells until it is needed; after menopause, fat cells begin to release estrogen since the ovaries no longer produce the hormone, but the body still uses it. More fatty tissue means higher levels of estrogen in the body after menopause, which contributes to cancer risk (the process is similar to taking artificial hormones after menopause, which also increases the risk of breast cancer).
Alcohol and Breast Cancer
How much and how often a woman consumes alcohol can impact her chances of developing breast cancer. According to over 100 studies, even drinking moderately increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. A meta-analysis of the information in 53 of these studies found that women who drank three or more alcoholic beverages per day were 1.5 times more likely to develop breast cancer compared to women who did not drink. As women drank more, their risk increased.
- For every additional 10 grams (one serving) consumed per day, there was a 7 percent higher risk of breast cancer.
- Those who have two or three drinks per day have a 20 percent higher risk compared to women who do not drink alcohol at all.
The most significant dietary change that can be made is limiting alcohol intake. If you are concerned about your alcohol use and need help, reach out to us. At our inpatient rehab in Orange County, CA we use addiction-focused healthcare to help people find meaningful recovery from dependence on or addiction to alcohol.
Other Potential Environmental Factors and Cancer
While diet — especially alcohol consumption — will increase one’s risk of breast cancer, there are other environmental factors that may be controllable. These include:
- Exposure to ionizing radiation, such as from x-rays.
- Using various hormone therapies, including birth control and post-menopausal hormone replacement.
Lifestyle Impacts Long-Term Health
Understanding the risks of breast cancer and taking preventative steps as much as possible is important. Making healthier decisions about food, alcohol consumption, and other lifestyle choices are great ways to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.
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