How to Eat to Lower Your Risk of Breast Cancer, from an Expert

Good News Notes:

Soy is not bad for you. Let’s just start with that misconception. In fact, soy, or specifically the phytoestrogen in soy products like tofu and soybeans, functions as a brake that inhibits cell growth, by acting on your beta estrogen receptors, which means it can help suppress cancer.

In contrast, actual estrogen acts in the opposite way: By binding with alpha receptors for estrogen, they push “go” on the growth of cells. That means that estrogen functions as an “on” switch for potential breast cancer cells, while plant-estrogen in soy is an “off” switch.

Why does this matter? Because there is a widespread misconception about diet and cancer, says Lee Crosby, and RD, LD, a resident dietician and breast cancer expert with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). Founded and led byDr. Neal Barnard, PCRM has been raising awareness about the impact of diet and cancer – especially where dairy is concerned. Barnard even went so far as to propose the USDA require warning labels on cheese, since studies show that eating full-fat dairy or other estrogen-promoting foods (including alcohol) can raise your risk of cancer, especially breast cancer.

Eat to reduce your risk of breast cancer

Lee Crosby wants you to know that dietary choices can have a positive effect on your health through habit. Her clear explanation about soy came up in the middle of a fascinating interview with the RD and breast cancer expert in the context of finding out what we can do, individually and as a society, to lower our personal risk of ever getting breast cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and though the words “breast cancer” may sound scary, this month is actually a great reminder that we each have the power to take care of ourselves, and that includes our whole selves, including the part of us that we call breasts. This means exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, moderating our alcohol consumption, learning other ways of coping with stress, and eating a mostlyplant-based diet full of antioxidant-rich foods – and avoiding saturated fat.

Breast cancer no longer has to be a taboo subject and it should in fact be something you talk to your doctor about all year long, but especially in October, when it’s a perfect chance to call her and ask whether you should be getting regularly screened either with mammography or a more detailed scan or both. Your medical provider can only do so much, however, and the rest of your health outcome is largely up to you, and to a lesser extent, your genes.

Smoking and obesity are the two biggest risk factors

According to the CDC, smoking and obesityare the top causes of cancer in America. If you’ve quit smoking or never started, kudos. The next step is to eat as healthy as possible, and that means adopting a mostly plant-based diet of whole foods, filling your plate with vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

That’s where the soy question inevitably comes up: Soy is one of the cleanest forms of protein on the planet, with 28.6 grams per cup, and it beats out most other beans for protein. Soy is a vital part of a healthy plant-based diet.

Breast cancer risk by the numbers. It’s mostly not genetic

Breast cancer occurs in one in 8 women in their lifetime – or about 13 percent of American women. The vast majority of those cases are not genetically driven (only 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancer cases are tied to hereditary factors, according to so it’s important to take steps to lower your risk, whether or not breast cancer runs in your family.

The good news: When caught in its earliest stages, stage 1 or earlier, breast cancer is 90 percent survivable, meaning not recurring within a five-year period, the closest thing science can consider a cure. Still, the numbers of new cases are staggering: An estimated 281,550 cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S. this year, along with 49,290 cases of non-invasive (in situ, extremely early) breast cancer, according to

Men also get breast cancer but it’s much rarer: About1 in 833 men will be diagnosed in their lifetime or about 2,650 men will be diagnosedwith breast cancer in the US this year, so it’s worth understanding the facts and being vigilant about symptoms, and smart about prevention.

The truth about estrogen and soy

Yet as much as we know, we still have questions, including what can we do to avoid ever hearing the words: “You have breast cancer.” And how to be healthy and survive it if we do get diagnosed. (Other than keep our weight in a healthy range and eat less saturated fat?)

Lee Crosby, RD, LD, has spent most of her professional life researching the connection between diet and cancer, specifically breast cancer, ever since she herself had a scare. First, she had a biopsy in one breast, then her doctor found a “thickening” of tissue in her other breast and though both turned out not to be cancer and the course of actions was to “watch and see” her continued scanning proved to be an interesting case study of one, she said.  When her diet went off the rails, for about three months, subsequent tests showed that this suspicious tissue grew. It was enough to get her to straighten out her diet and then later, that same “thickening” shrunk again. While not scientific, this experience led her down a new path.

Over the course of researching every study about cancer and diet, Crosby became an expert. Her findings convinced her to go mostly plant-based and to give up meat and dairy in favor of plant-based foods such as soy, legumes, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Yes, soy.

Crosby clears up what might be the biggest misconception in the diet-cancer connection, which is the role of plant-estrogens found in soy once they enter the body. Plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens, are not actual estrogens, she explains, and they work on an entirely different mechanism in our bodies.
“When it comes to estrogens, especially those that our own bodies make, there are two types of receptors,” Crosby explains. “Alpha receptors and beta receptors for estrogen. Alpha receptors act like accelerators and tell cells to grow, while beta receptors act as braes and tell cells to stop growing. Estrogen binds to the alpha receptors and sends the signal to grow, while plant-estrogen binds to the beta receptors and does the opposite: Tells the cells to stop growing.” This is why soy has been found to be beneficial in women’s diets when it comes to measuring the effect of soy foods such as tofu and soybean on breast cancer rates, especially the rate of recurrence in women who have already been diagnosed….”

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