Dr. C. Joseph Bennett, Navigating Cancer, 12/25/12

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Diet and breast cancer

By Dr. C. Joseph Bennett

In many of my previous columns, I have discussed the need and the importance of moving back to a plant-based diet.

Our country is so obese, and this move can help with this disturbing trend. Now, there is even more of a reason for women to eat their fruits and veggies.

A new study suggests that women with higher levels of carotenoids — nutrients found in fruits and vegetables — have a lower risk of breast cancer, especially cancers that are harder to treat and have a poorer prognosis.

When researchers from Harvard Medical School pooled the results of studies that measured carotenoid levels in women’s blood, they found that those with the highest levels had a lower risk of breast cancer compared to those with the lowest levels.

The association appeared to be stronger for smokers than for non-smokers, and for women who were lean compared to those who were overweight. All of these factors influence the life expectancy of women in this country.

Carotenoids are the micronutrients in fruits and vegetables that give them their vibrant orange, yellow, and red colors. Foods that are good sources of carotenoids include carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, red peppers and winter squash.

As I have said before, our plates need to be colorful with fruits and veggies, not brown and white with meat and potatoes.

Having higher circulating blood-carotenoid levels may be particularly protective against breast cancers that do not need estrogen to grow. The finding suggests that eating a healthy, plant-based diet may be one of the first modifiable risk factors for these less common, poorer-prognosis cancers.

The study combined data from eight trials that included more than 3,000 women with breast cancer and close to 4,000 women without the disease. It is not clear if carotenoids directly lowered cancer risk. The message to women does not change.

If we want to reduce the risk of cancer, not just breast cancer, eating a plant-based diet low in fat and animal protein may help. This study, like others, suggests this is the case. The study was recently published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The suggestion that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables may be particularly beneficial for women at risk for non-estrogen-dependent tumors is especially intriguing.

Many breast cancers in women with a family history of the disease and specific genetic mutations that dramatically increase their breast cancer risk fall into this category. Making healthy lifestyle choices is important for women with a genetically increased risk for cancer.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is no guarantee that a high-risk woman will not get cancer, and it’s no substitute for aggressive screening. But, it’s exciting news that fruits and vegetables may help prevent breast cancer.

At the same time, we don’t want to give high-risk women a false sense that if they eat right they don’t have to be vigilant about screening. Yearly mammograms save lives, so make sure you get yours on a regular basis.

Dr. C. Joseph Bennett is a board-certified radiation oncologist and a member of the Citrus County Unit of the American Cancer Society. Watch “Navigating Cancer” on WYKE TV at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and at 10 a.m. Thursdays. If you have any suggestions for topics, or have any questions, contact him at 522 N. Lecanto Highway, Lecanto, FL 34461, or email cjbennett@rboi.com. ­