RETHINKING BREAST HEALTH
Natural ways to keep breasts smooth, pain-free and firm, while reducing the risk of cancer.We’ve been conditioned to narrowly define breast health in terms of pink ribbon campaigns, cancer awareness marches and cold, steel mammography machines. Nearly 30 years after anticancer drug maker Imperial Chemical Industries (now AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals) established the first National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October 1985, many women have come to equate healthy breasts with cancer-free breasts, and assume the most important thing they can do is undergo regular screening.
But amid this chorus, some women’s health advocates are striving to get a different message across: There are a host of steps women can take to not only fend off disease in the future, but keep their breasts in optimal condition today. “We need to change the conversation about our breasts from how to avoid breast cancer and detect it early to how to have healthy breasts and enjoy them,” says Dr. Christiane Northrup, an obstetrician and gynecologist from Yarmouth, Maine, and author of the new book Goddesses Never Age: The Secret Prescription for Radiance, Vitality, and Well-Being.
Healthy Breasts, Healthy BodyIn adolescence, breast changes are the first to signal the arrival of womanhood. When she’s aroused, a woman’s nipples harden and change color. When a woman gives birth, her breasts fill with life-giving milk. “In all these ways, your breasts are deeply connected to your femininity, compassion and sensuality,” says Hawaiian Naturopathic Doctor Laurie Steelsmith, co-author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health. Because breasts are extremely sensitive to hormonal fluctuations throughout the body, they can also serve as a barometer of overall health. “If you’re having chronic breast symptoms, it can be your body’s wisdom saying, ‘Help. Something’s wrong.’ Women need to listen.”
While some premenstrual swelling and tenderness is normal, exaggerated or persistent pain is often a sign of systemic estrogen dominance in relation to progesterone. It’s common in the years leading up to menopause, but can also hint at impaired thyroid function, because low levels of thyroid hormones have been shown to boost estrogen in breast tissue, advises Steelsmith.
Large, fluid-filled cysts or fibrous lumps, while non-cancerous, can also be a reflection of overexposure to harmful chemicals and toxin buildup, combined with poor lymph flow, notes Dr. Elizabeth Vaughan, an integrative physician in Greensboro, North Carolina. “If a woman has lumpy, bumpy breasts, they probably contain too many toxins, and those toxins are primarily estrogenic.” Addressing such symptoms is important not only to relieve discomfort, but also because excess estrogen can fuel future cancer risk, says Vaughan.
Any new, suspicious lump should be evaluated by a professional. Also, severe breast tenderness combined with nipple discharge could be a sign of infection or a problem with the pituitary gland, so it should also be checked. But typically, subtle natural healthcare steps can go a long way toward restoring breast wellness.
For nipple tenderness, Steelsmith recommends chaste-tree berry (175 milligrams [mg] of powdered extract or 40 drops daily). The herbal supplement mimics naturally occurring progesterone in the body, helping to counter estrogen dominance. Vitamin E (400 to 800 international units [IU] per day) and evening primrose oil (1,500 mg twice a day) have also been shown to alleviate breast tenderness.
For fibrous or cyst-filled breasts, Vaughan advises supplementing with iodine (up to 12.5 mg per day via kelp, seaweed or oral tablets) or applying an iodine solution to the breasts at night. A key constituent of thyroid hormones, iodine helps the liver convert unfriendly forms of estrogen into friendlier forms and flush toxins out of lymph nodes in the breast. Also, steer clear of chocolate and coffee, because caffeine is believed to interact with enzymes in the breast, exaggerating pain and lumpiness.
Also consider ditching the bra, says Vaughan. Brassieres can constrict lymph nodes and hinder blood circulation in breasts, locking toxins in and aggravating fibrocystic symptoms. The link between bras and breast cancer risk remains hotly debated, with one 2014 U.S. National Cancer Institute study of 1,400 women concluding unequivocally that, “There’s no evidence that wearing a bra increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer,” while smaller studies from the United States, China, Venezuela, Scotland and Africa suggest a link. Vaughan, the founder of BraFree.org, says the science is compelling enough that she has chosen to keep her own bra use to a minimum and advises her patients to do the same.
“Obviously, there are certain sports where you should wear a sports bra and there are certain dresses that only look right with a bra,” says Vaughan. At a minimum, avoid wearing a bra to bed and steer clear of underwires and overly tight bras that leave red marks. “This is not about guilt-tripping women into never wearing a bra. It’s about wearing a bra less.”
Beautiful Breasts NaturallyToo small or too big, lopsided or riddled with stretch marks… it seems almost every woman has a complaint about the appearance of her breasts. That’s a problem, says Northrup, because, “Healthy breasts are breasts that are loved. We have to stop beating them up.”
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the number of women getting breast implants for cosmetic reasons ballooned from 212,500 in 2000 to 286,254 in 2014. Physicians—including Northrup—claim that modern implants don’t, in the majority of cases, promote disease like older silicone implants did. Yet even plastic surgeons warn that having implants should be fully thought out, and at some point they’ll probably have to come out. “They are manmade devices, and are not intended to be lifelong. At some point, you will probably have to have further surgery,” says Dr. Anureet Bajaj, an Oklahoma City plastic surgeon.
Bajaj notes that implants can rupture, forming scar tissue and lending irregular shape to the breast. Often, as a woman ages and her body changes, the larger breasts she chose in her 20s no longer look right and may cause back and shoulder pain. In some cases, implants can also lead to loss of nipple sensitivity. For these and other reasons, 23,774 women—including actress Melissa Gilbert and model Victoria Beckham—had their implants removed in 2014, often following up with a breast lift (using their own tissue) to restore their shape.
Vaughan sees breast implant removal as a wise and courageous choice to restore optimal breast health. Better yet, don’t get implants in the first place. “There are a lot of other things you can do to improve the appearance of your breasts,” she advises.
Vaughan recommends breast-perking exercises like dumbbell bench presses and flys that tone the pectoral muscles beneath the breasts, making them more resilient and look larger. To prevent or reverse sagging, she again urges women to go bra-free. “We have ligaments in the upper outer quadrant of our breasts called Cooper’s ligaments, and they’re responsible for holding our breasts up. Just like your muscles atrophy when you put your arm in a sling, your Cooper’s ligaments atrophy if you wear a bra all the time.”
In one unpublished, yet highly publicized 2013 study, French Exercise Physiologist Jean-Denis Rouillon measured the busts of 330 women ages 18 to 35 over a period of 15 years and found those that regularly wore a bra had droopier breasts with lower nipples than those that didn’t. In another, smaller, Japanese study, researchers found that when women stopped wearing a bra for three months, their breasts perked up.
Those worried about stretch marks also have options. They can be a sign of inadequate copper, which promotes collagen integrity and helps skin stretch without injury, says Steelsmith. If rapid weight gain is occurring due to adolescence, pregnancy or for other reasons, try taking copper supplements or applying a topical copper spray on the breasts.
Remember to massage your breasts daily, not only as a “search and destroy mission” for early detection of cancerous lumps, says Northrup, but as a way to get waste products flowing out and loving energy flowing in.
“It concerns me that women feel pressured to think of their breasts as two potentially pre-malignant lesions sitting on their chests,” Northrup says. “These are organs of nourishment and pleasure for both ourselves and others. We need to remember that, too.”
Bust Musts for Cancer PreventionAccording to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and nearly 40,000 will die annually of the disease. But at least 38 percent of those diagnoses could be prevented via diet and lifestyle changes, affirms the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).
“For decades, the dominant public message about breast cancer has been about early detection,” says Medical Doctor Robert Pendergrast, an associate professor at the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta, and author of Breast Cancer: Reduce Your Risk with Foods You Love. “Screening is important, but not nearly enough attention is being paid to prevention.” Here’s what we can do to keep cancer at bay or from recurring.
Eat more veggies: Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, are loaded with indole-3-carbinol, or I3C, a potent anticancer compound that helps break down excess estrogen and convert it into a more friendly, or benign form, says Steelsmith. One study in Alternative Medicine Review found that women that ate high amounts of cruciferous vegetables were 30 percent less likely to develop breast cancer over 30 years. I3C can also be taken as a supplement (300 milligrams [mg] per day).
Eat more fiber, especially flax: Fiber, via whole grains, fruits and vegetables, helps flush out toxins including unfriendly estrogen. Flax contains cancer-fighting compounds called lignans, which block the effects of excess or unfriendly estrogen on cells.
Drink less alcohol: Alcohol boosts estrogen levels in women and is broken down in the liver to acetaldehyde, a known toxin that causes cancer in laboratory animals, notes Naturopath Laurie Steelsmith. According to the AICR, a woman that has five drinks per week boosts her risk by 5 percent. Two or more drinks per day boosts such risk by more than 40 percent.
Skip the barbecue: Charring meat produces carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines. A study of 42,000 women, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that those that routinely ate well-done hamburger, beef or bacon had four times the risk of those that opted for medium or medium-rare.
Keep weight in check: Excessive estrogen, which lives in fat cells, fuels cancer risk. According to the AICR, a woman with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 (obese) has a 13 percent higher risk of cancer than a woman with a BMI of 25 (slightly overweight).
Spice up life: Curcumin from the turmeric plant has been shown in many studies to have potent immune-boosting and anticancer properties, reactivating sleeping tumor-suppressor genes that can kill cancer cells.
De-stress: Growing evidence that includes studies from Ohio State University suggest that stress can boost the risk of breast cancer and recurrence, plus heighten its aggressiveness by altering hormones and impairing immunity. One study from Finland’s University of Helsinki followed 10,808 Finnish women for 15 years and found as much as double the rate of breast cancer among those that had experienced a divorce or death of a spouse or family member.
Drink green tea: It’s loaded with epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a potent antioxidant believed to suppress new blood vessel growth in tumors and keep cancerous cells from invading healthy tissue.
Triumph Over The ‘Big C’When Sandy Messonnier was diagnosed with breast cancer, she faced scary treatment decisions as doctors pressured her to consider all means available. “I was more afraid of the treatment than the cancer itself,” says Messonnier, 52, of Plano, Texas. “I kept feeling like I was being lumped into one big category of all women that got breast cancer, rather than treated as an individual.”
With the help of her holistic veterinarian husband Shawn Messonnier, Sandy took a more measured approach, blending conventional and complementary medicine in an individualized protocol the couple describes in their book, Breast Choices for the Best Chances: Your Breasts, Your Life, and How You Can Win the Battle!
After careful consideration, Sandy opted for two lumpectomies three weeks apart, instead of a mastectomy, to remove the small tumor. The second one was done to clear up a few remaining cells indicated by a biopsy. Meanwhile, she took supplements including green tea and coriolus mushrooms to impede the spread of the cancer cells. Several tests helped determine if she needed chemotherapy and the optimum dose for some of her supplements. The results prompted her to decline chemotherapy and opt for a brief stint of radiation while taking the supplements quercetin and curcumin to help combat the fatigue and other side effects. Afterward, she cleansed her body with homeopathic mistletoe, herbal milk thistle and other detoxifying supplements. Then she began the work of keeping cancer at bay.
“A lot of doctors never talk to you about what you are going to do after the poisoning [chemo], the burning and surgery,” she says. “Rather than taking a cancer-fighting drug, I chose to be more mindful of what I do with my body.”
Her regimen called for committing to keeping up with the healthy diet, plus regular walks, yoga and Pilates that she believes helped keep the cancer relatively mild to begin with. But she also made some life changes to address the one thing she believes may have driven the outbreak in the first place—stress. She made peace with her mother, which reduced a lot of stress, began to cultivate a spiritual life and now takes time to meditate or walk when she feels even lightly stressed. She also vowed to keep the fear of recurrence from overwhelming her. “Many women never stop worrying about it,” she observes. “That is toxic energy you are putting back into your body.”
As of this October, Messonnier will be five years cancer-free. Her advice for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer: “Chemotherapy, radiation and mastectomy are not among the right choices for all women. There are other options, depending on the type of cancer. Don’t be so fearful that you make hasty decisions you don’t need to make.”
Lisa Marshall is a freelance health writer in Boulder, CO. Connect at LisaAnnMarshall.com.