Statistics show that the incidence of breast cancer has risen quite sharply over the last few decades, and the disease is now believed to affect about one in ten women at some point in their lives. Fortunately, as rates of breast cancer have grown, so has awareness of the condition: increasing numbers of women, it seems, are eager to learn of things that might reduce their breast cancer risk. Recent research suggesting that breast-feeding can afford some protection from breast cancer will no doubt be welcomed by mothers who choose this form of nourishment for their little ones. However, fewer women than ever are opting to have families, and many mothers choose not to or are simply unable to breast-feed their babies. Despite being a huge breast-feeding fan, I suspect there will be a bunch of women out there who will not view it as a particularly relevant or useful way of reducing their risk of succumbing to the most common female cancer.
Fortunately, for those women seeking a more practical approach to breast cancer protection, help is at hand. Several studies show that diet can have an important influence on the risk of this condition. One dietary component that has been the focus of much attention for its potential to reduce breast cancer risk is a class of compounds known as the phytoestrogens. Within the body, phytoestrogens have an action similar to, though weaker than, the female hormone oestrogen. Oestrogen is known to be a potent factor in the development and growth of many breast tumours. Phytoestrogens are believed to block the effects of oestrogen on breast tissue, reducing its cancer-inducing potential as they do this.
Several foods are known to contain phytoestrogens, perhaps the most celebrated of which is the soya bean. Soya contains a particular class of phytoestrogen known as the isoflavones, and several studies have shown that individuals who consume a diet rich in these such as Japanese and Chinese women enjoy relative protection from breast cancer. Indeed, a study published last month found that women consuming the most soya-based foods were 60 per cent less likely to have breast tissue deemed to be at high risk of developing cancer compared to women whose diets were low in soya products. Splashing soya milk, rather than the regular bovine-derived variety, onto breakfast cereal in the morning, and throwing tofu or tempeh into the occasional stew or stir-fry are simple measures that might offer considerable protection from breast cancer in the long term.
Soya, though oft lauded for its phytoestrogen content, is not the only food that offers something here. Chickpeas (the basic ingredient in hummus) and lentils are also rich in isoflavones and therefore have breast cancer prevention potential. Another food, linseeds (flaxseeds), contain a type of phytoestrogen known as lignans, and these are also believed to help reduce breast cancer risk. Linseed-enriched bread is now quite widely available, though another alternative would be to take a daily dessertspoonful of the seeds (available in health food stores) on breakfast cereal, salad or straight off the spoon with some water. The evidence suggests that including plenty of phytoestrogen-rich foodstuffs in the diet is prudent for any women looking to do what she can to reduce her risk of cancer of the breast.