It’s no surprise that breast cancer consistently ranks as the number-one health fear among women. After all, in 2011, 207,090 American women will be diagnosed with the disease. But the news isn’t all bleak. Since 1990, deaths from breast cancer have been decreasing by about 2.2 percent per year. Today, an estimated 2.5 million survivors are walking, running, dancing, working, even having babies. And thanks to medical advances, their ranks are growing. Want more reasons to think positive? Read on.
✱ The taco effect. According to a University of Utah study, women who eat Mexican food can reduce their risk for breast cancer by 32 percent. Lead researcher Maureen Murtaugh says traditional Mexican dishes such as vegetable soup, green and red chile sauce, beef tostadas, tacos, guacamole, refried beans and chili rellenos seemed to produce the effect (note that nachos and chimichangas didn’t make the list). Not a spice girl? Mediterranean cuisine reduced cancer risk by 24 percent. It isn’t clear why these diets work, but Murtaugh thinks compounds in legumes and veggies may play a role.
✱ Sweat it out. Exercise: no matter when you start or what you do can cut your chances of getting breast cancer, too. After reviewing 62 studies, Canadian researchers reported that lean women who are moderately to vigorously active throughout their life, but especially after menopause, can reduce their risk by about 25 percent. Exercise may lower the production of hormones like estrogen and insulin that stimulate breast cell growth, boosting cancer risk. You’ll get the most benefit from activities like running, tennis, cycling, swimming laps or aerobics, but all kinds of physical activity, including housework, seem to help.
✱ Cauliflower for a cure. Eating lots of cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cabbage, turnip, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, bok choy and kale, can slash breast cancer risk by about 50 percent. Who benefits? Researchers at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville found that women ages 25 through 64 who carry a gene variation called Val/Val are most likely to get the payoff. There’s no way to know if you carry the gene and researchers don’t know how much you need to eat, so err on the side of caution.”Since there doesn’t seem to be any harm and there could be some real benefit, try to eat more of these vegetables,” says lead study author Jay Fowke. Don’t overcook: The more crunch that broccoli or cabbage has, the more cancer-fighting benefits you’ll get.
✱ Double-duty detection. It’s best to catch cancer early when it’s easiest to treat. On that score, pairing mammography with ultrasound may discover more cancers than digital or film mammograms in women at high risk for breast cancer as well as those with dense breasts. More than half of women under age 50 and about one-third of women 50 and older have dense breasts, which can make it hard to see abnormalities. Because ultrasound takes longer to do than a mammogram, it may be best for now to reserve it for those times when a doctor needs additional information, says Dr. Shawna Willey, president of the American Society of Breast Surgeons.
✱ Better tumor targeting. A variation on a prostate cancer treatment, seed therapy is helping breast cancer surgeons uncover and remove the tiniest of tumors. Using ultrasound to guide her, the radiologist implants a rice-sized radioactive pellet in or very near the suspicious mass with a thin needle. The surgeon then uses a probe to pick up the radioactivity and find the tumor. This technique improves on the typical method, which involves implanting a hook-like wire, because the seeds are easier to place close to the tumor and are more likely to stay put, says surgical oncologist Dr. Roshni Rao of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
✱ Hot-flash blocker. A treatment that has helped pain patients for decades promises relief for survivors plagued by the hot flashes triggered by chemotherapy–which can cause menopause–and medications like anti-estrogens. In one study, researchers injected an anesthetic into a collection of neck nerves that controls body temperature. Two weeks after the women received the injection, their hot flashes plummeted from about 79 per week to 49; by week 12, women had just 8 per week. Some women found relief for more than two years after a single shot.
Check out these resources for more information.
Northwestern University’s Oncofertility Consortium provides information to women and men the effect of cancer treatment on fertility and options for preserving fertility after a cancer diagnosis.
The Young Survival Coalition gives support and information to women age 40 and under affected by breast cancer.
Get updates on survivor Courtney Bugler, diagnosed at age 29 and, now at 31, pregnant with her first child, on her blog, Biography of Breast Cancer