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Breast Cancer Prevention


Alternative approaches that combine

Eastern and Western medicine could reduce breast cancer risk


Weill Medical College Center for Women’s Healthcare Women’s Health Advisor, April 2004


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.

Pollution

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 as possible.

Nutrition

“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 Dr. Gaynor.  

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.

Stress

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.


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