The Health Index
What are the causes?
Female sex hormones - oestrogens and progestogens - play a role in breast cancer. Put simply, the female hormones stimulate growth in the glandular cells. In addition to the body's own natural hormones, hormones supplied from outside the body are also relevant, for example in hormone therapy during the menopause or xenoestrogens from environmental pollutants.
The fact that hormone levels fluctuate during each menstrual cycle and affect the structure of the mammary gland is quite normal. Pregnancy and the menopause have a more lasting effect on breast tissue. Pregnancies with subsequent breastfeeding periods can reduce the risk of breast cancer - the younger the person is at the time of pregnancy and breastfeeding, the better. It is good to have a total breastfeeding period of more than one and a half to two years.
Risk factors for breast cancer are a genetic predisposition, advancing age, obesity, and a high alcohol intake. A long time span between the first and last menstrual period can also play a role. The earlier menstruation starts and the later the menopause begins, the longer the breast is exposed to hormonal influences. This is considered a factor that increases the risk of breast cancer. Hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms may increase the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. This is especially true when combined treatment with oestrogens and progestins is used for longer periods.
After the hormone therapy is stopped, the risk goes down again. However, experts think that low-dose hormone replacement therapy for a limited time is acceptable for healthy women who experience severe symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats or depression
What are the symptoms?
In the early stages, breast cancer does not usually cause any symptoms. Possible signs that might point to breast cancer are:
Lumps or hardenings in the breast or armpit Indented nipple
Discharge of clear or bloody liquid from the nipple
One breast changes in shape and size compared to the other
Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
Redness or scaling of the skin of the breast, sometimes accompanied by pain, a pulling sensation in the breast or swelling
Four out of five lumps in the breast are benign. Nevertheless, you should always get to the bottom of any newly detected changes and have them checked out by your GP or gynaecologist.
How can a nutrition practitioner help?
There is a genetic predisposition for breast cancer, but it is now known that having a gene does for a disease does not mean that the disease will manifest itself. That only happens if the gene is expressed, i.e. whether it is “switched on”. There is a whole new field of research – epigenetics – that is looking into which factors affect gene expression.
We already know that it depends very much on diet and lifestyle choices, and in any case: a good diet and healthy lifestyle will not do any harm. Overweight and obesity are also implicated in breast cancer. Abdominal fat secretes oestrogen and contributes to elevated oestrogen levels. Your nutrition practitioner can guide and coach you during your weight loss. If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and are being treated, your nutrition practitioner will work alongside your medical team.
Knowing how, what and when to eat while on cancer treatment can have a considerable impact on how you feel during treatment. A nutritional approach always depends on the individual case but may focus on diet and lifestyle interventions generally used to prevent or manage inflammation, which may help reduce pain and speed up recovery. A nutrition practitioner will ask questions about your overall health and health history, diet, lifestyle and exercise habits.
They will look at your food diary to see where there may be room for improvement. Your nutrition practitioner may also recommend functional testing. They will then develop a customised diet, supplement and lifestyle plan for you.