Eastern and Western medicine could reduce breast cancer risk
Weill Medical College Center for Women’s Healthcare Women’s Health Advisor, April
Every day, you take preventive actions—brushing your teeth, fastening your seatbelt.
In the same way, says Mitchell Gaynor, M.D., “you can take actions against developing
breast cancer. All you need is knowing what to do, and knowing that it’s possible.”
Recently Dr. Gaynor, Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Weill Medical
College of Cornell University and former director of the Weill-Cornell Center for
Integrative Medicine, together with Nan Lu, O.M.D., shared breast cancer prevention
strategies from the perspective of alternative medicine (also called complementary
or integrative medicine). Dr. Lu, founding director of the Traditional Chinese Medicine
World Foundation, is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), a licensed acupuncturist,
and an advisor to Columbia University's Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine
Research in Women's Health.
TCM, a medical system practiced in China for 5000 years, looks at the body holistically,
explained Dr. Lu. It seeks to maintain a free flow of qi (chi, or vital energy) throughout
the body and to harmonize the functioning of the major organs. According to TCM,
blockage in the flow of qi can lead first to minor ailments such as indigestion,
then to disordered organ function with more severe symptoms such as migraine headaches,
and eventually to a serious disorder such as cancer. As Einstein discovered, energy
can turn into mass; and on the same principle, says TCM, stagnant energy in the body
can solidify into a tumor.
Drs. Gaynor and Lu stressed several cancer-causing factors that you can counter through
your own preventive efforts.
Most people don’t realize how serious environmental pollution is, says Dr. Gaynor.
Dioxin, a carcinogen produced by burning hazardous waste such as tires, gets into
air, water, and grass, and we consume it in beef and dairy. Produce is sprayed with
pesticides and herbicides—including DDT, which is banned in the US but enters on
out-of-season produce from abroad—that act as endocrine disruptors, weak forms of
estrogen that bind to estrogen receptors on cells and can stimulate cancer cell growth.
For these reasons, Dr. Gaynor stressed, it’s important to eat organic food as much
“Plant-based nutrients can turn off genes that lead to cancer and depress or stimulate
parts of the immune system that are responsible for cancer,” said Dr. Gaynor. Some
foods—including green tea, garlic, broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, and
omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish and in flax seeds—induce the body to
produce detoxifying enzymes such as glutathione-S transferase that protect it from
environmental carcinogens. Curcumin (the substance that makes turmeric yellow), rosemary,
green tea, and red grapes contain natural inhibitors of cyclooxygenase-2, an enzyme
that prevents cells from dying normally and induces a cancer cell promoter.
Learn more about protective nutrients and eat more foods that contain them, concluded
In TCM, noted Dr. Lu, certain foods are important for reversing another precondition
of cancer: a deep internal cold, which causes energy to stagnate. This cold condition
can develop in the body through eating cold food and drinking cold beverages. Dr.
Lu recommended consuming more warming foods such as ginger, cinnamon, and fennel,
and fewer cold foods. In the winter especially, eat less raw salad and dairy, and
cook your vegetables.
Another factor causing energy stagnation, said Dr. Lu, is negative emotions resulting
from traumatic life events or chronic stress. Western women are under tremendous
stress because of the multiple roles our society demands from them. “The liver is
the organ that controls the whole body’s energy flow, and stress can cause liver
function disorder,” Dr. Lu explained. So it’s essential for women to take measures
to counter the effects of stress. He strongly emphasized the value of meditation,
even if this means simply taking a couple of minutes for yourself to sit still, quiet
your mind, and reconnect with your heart, or intuitive knowledge. “Many religions
teach you to listen to the heart, not the mind,” he said. “When the heart is peaceful,
you can tap into your own natural healing ability.”
Scientific studies have investigated whether stress actually causes breast cancer,
but the results are inconclusive. However, Dr. Gaynor pointed out that stress suppresses
the immune system and noted that for his patients, stress reduction is crucial in
recovery. “I use breathing techniques from yoga, music, voice, and chanting to bring
people to deep states of inner peace and relaxation” and help them release fear,
anxiety, and other negative emotions.
Drs. Gaynor and Lu emphasized that women can learn to take charge of their own healing,
and that they don’t have to choose between conventional and alternative medicine:
these modalities can be used together. As Dr. Gaynor put it, “I can integrate Dr.
Lu’s comments about liver function with my own insights” as a Western oncologist.