What causes breast cancer?
Many risk factors may increase your chance of developing breast cancer, but it is not yet known exactly how some of these risk factors cause cells to become cancerous. Hormones seem to play a role in many cases of breast cancer, but just how this happens is not fully understood.
Certain changes in DNA can cause normal breast cells to become cancerous. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes — the instructions for how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than how we look.
Some genes contain instructions for controlling when our cells grow, divide, and die. Certain genes that speed up cell division are called oncogenes. Others that slow down cell division, or cause cells to die at the right time, are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA mutations (changes) that “turn on” oncogenes or “turn off” tumor suppressor genes.
Inherited gene mutations
Certain inherited DNA changes can increase the risk for developing cancer and are responsible for the cancers that run in some families. For example, the BRCA genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) are tumor suppressor genes. Mutations in these genes can be inherited from parents. When they are mutated, they no longer suppress abnormal growth, and cancer is more likely to develop.
Women have already begun to benefit from advances in understanding the genetic basis of breast cancer. Genetic testing can identify some women who have inherited mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 tumor suppressor genes (or less commonly in other genes such as PTEN or p53). These women can then take steps to reduce their risk of developing breast cancers and to monitor changes in their breasts carefully to find cancer at an earlier, more treatable stage. These are discussed in the following sections of this document.
Acquired gene mutations
Most DNA mutations related to breast cancer occur in single breast cells during a woman’s life rather than having been inherited. These acquired mutations of oncogenes and/or tumor suppressor genes may result from other factors, like radiation or cancer-causing chemicals. But so far, the causes of most acquired mutations that could lead to breast cancer remain unknown. Most breast cancers have several gene mutations that are acquired.
Tests to spot acquired gene changes may help doctors more accurately predict the outlook for some women with breast cancer. For example, tests can identify women whose breast cancer cells have too many copies of the HER2 oncogene. These cancers tend to be more aggressive. At the same time, drugs have been developed that specifically target these cancers.
Does Caffeine Cause Breast Cancer?
Top 10 Steps to prevent Breast Cancer
1. Maintain a healthy body weight (BMI less than 25) throughout your life. Weight gain in midlife, independent of BMI, has been shown to significantly increase breast cancer risk. Additionally, and elevated BMI has been conclusively shown to increase the risk of post-menopausal breast cancer.
2. Minimize or avoid alcohol. Alcohol use is the most well established dietary risk factor for breast cancer. The Harvard Nurses’ Health study, along with several others, has shown consuming more than one alcoholic beverage a day can increase breast cancer risk by as much as 20-25 percent.
3. Consume as many fruits and vegetables as possible. Eat seven or more servings daily. The superstars for breast cancer protection include all cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower) ; dark leafy greens (collards, kale, spinach) ; carrots and tomatoes. The superstar fruits include citrus, berries and cherries. Note: it is best to eat cruciferous vegetables raw or lightly cooked, as some of the phytochemicals believed to offer protection against breast cancer are destroyed by heat.
4. Exercise regularly the rest of your life. Many studies have shown that regular exercise provides powerful protection against breast cancer. Aim for 30 minutes or more of moderate aerobic activity (brisk walking) five or more days a week. Consistency and duration, not intensity, are key!
5. Do your fats right! The type of fat in your diet can affect your breast cancer risk. Minimize consumption of omega-6 fats (sunflower, safflower, corn and cottonseed oils), saturated fats and trans fats. Maximize your intake of omega-3 fats, especially from oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, lake trout and herring). Consume monounsaturated oils (canola, olive oil, nuts/seeds, avocados) as your primary fat source, as these foods have potential anticancer properties. Specifically, canola oil is a good source of omega-3 fats; extra virgin olive oil is a potent source of antioxidant polyphenols, including squalene; and nuts and seeds provide you with the cancer protective mineral, selenium.
6. Do your carbs right! Minimize consumption of the high glycemic index, “Great White Hazards” – white flour, white rice, white potatoes, sugar and products containing them. These foods trigger hormonal changes that promote cellular growth in breast tissue. Replace these “wrong” carbs with whole grains and beans/legumes. Beans/legumes because of their high fiber and lignan content are especially special.
7. Consume whole food soy products regularly, such as tofu, tempeh, edamame, roasted soy nuts, soy milk and miso. Only consume organic, non-GMO (genetically modified) soy. Epidemiologic studies have shown a positive association between soy consumption and reduced breast cancer risk.
8. Minimize exposure to pharmacologic estrogens and xeno-estrogens. Do not take prescription estrogens unless medically indicated. Lifetime exposure to estrogen plays a fundamental role in the development of breast cancer. Also avoid estrogen-like compounds found in environmental pollutants, such as pesticides and industrial chemicals. Buy organic produce if you can afford it; otherwise, thoroughly wash all non-organic produce. Minimize exposure to residual hormones found in non-organic dairy products, meat and poultry.
9. Take your supplements daily. A multivitamin, 500-1,000 mg of vitamin C in divided doses, 200-400 IUs of vitamin E as mixed tocopherols, and pharmaceutical grade fish oil. Also take 200 mcg of the mineral selenium or eat one to two Brazil nuts as an alternative. If you have a chronic medical condition or take prescription drugs, consult your physician first.
10. Maintain a positive mental outlook. Engage in self-nurturing behaviors regularly. Develop rich, warm and mutually beneficial relationships with family and friends. Get adequate sleep (7-8 hours per night). The mind-body associations with breast cancer are significant.
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