Much as I like to think I’m a good role model (as humans go), I’m guessing that none of you wants to be like me. Bright, witty or (a-hem) humble as I might be, being like me means that you live your life in the shadow of a cancer diagnosis. Specifically, a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).
Since this topic has become one of special interest to me (sigh), I figure the least I can do is use what I learn to help keep others off the path I’m on. What follows here are a few pointers, based on recent research, that might keep you from emulating me:
First off, if you want to avoid a diagnosis of TNBC, don’t have children. According to a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the more times a woman gives birth, the higher her risk of TNBC. Those of you looking for a reason not to get pregnant might shout out with relief at this news, but there’s one problem, and it comes in the form of a Catch-22. The research also confirmed that women who don’t give birth at all have a 40% higher risk of developing estrogen-positive disease, the most common type of breast cancer. The report can give you the fine details about this conundrum, but what they point to is this: you may be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. (I don’t care what the study says, dammit, I’m still glad I have my kids.)
The second pointer: Eat your veggies, specifically your cabbage, kale and other cruciferous ones. Research from Italy shows that indole-3-carbinole, a substance found in large quantities in these veggies, can fight both TNBC and hormone-positive breast cancer when injected into tumors. OK, so the study was done in cell lines in a lab, not in humans, but you can’t use that as an excuse to avoid eating Brussels sprouts.
Speaking of antioxidants, you might try to figure out how to incorporate a particular one into your system. A report in Cancer Biology and Therapy describes how the tumor-suppressor protein Caveolin-1 (Cav-1) can inhibit cancer, cardiovascular disease, and muscular dystrophy, and it might be particularly helpful in those of us with TNBC. There’s lots of good data in the article, but no explanation of how you can ensure that you have this protein, and no genetic tests for it are currently available. So let’s file this news in the “keep an eye on it” category.
Third, keep up with that exercise and watch your weight. With all the talk about health problems in the U.S., we should all know this by now, but news from the Women’s Health Initiative published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention confirms that being overweight and inactive increases your risk of breast cancer (and about a million other health problems). But here are some of the fine details: weight gain between ages 35 and 50 carries the greatest risk, and a body mass index above 31 and below 23.75 are also risk factors. So even though you can’t ever be too rich, it appears that you can indeed be too thin.
Fourth, read the fine print about Vitamin D. Getting more might be good thing: low levels of vitamin D are directly correlated with TNBC in humans. But if you’re a mouse, that vitamin might not be such a good thing. Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center found that vitamin D significantly reduced the development of estrogen-positive breast cancer in both lean and obese mice, but did not help mice with estrogen-negative cancer (which includes TNBC). In fact, obese mice who developed estrogen-negative cancer were worse off than lean mice if they were given vitamin D. (See, obesity is a bad thing even in mice.)
Older women might especially like these next two items:
- If you’re past menopause, you can just keep right on smoking and drinking alcohol and not worry about increasing your risk of TNBC. Actually, you might even want to drink a little more. The researchers determined that smoking and alcohol use were both associated with estrogen-positive breast cancer, but not with TNBC (Cancer Causes Control). In fact, drinking alcohol actually slightly reduced the risk of TNBC. So there you go – a reason to toast menopause with that extra glass of wine, except that for that darned Catch-22 of alcohol increasing the risk of hormone-positive disease. And, oh yeah, there’s still the problem of smoking leading to lung cancer.
- If you are over 65 and have TNBC with affected lymph nodes, make sure you get that chemotherapy. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that older patients in generally good health with TNBC do as well as younger patients and should get the best possible chemotherapy.
So there you have it for this week. Next week, who knows? The evidence cited here might be de-bunked in the next round of research in the War on Cancer. Here’s hoping you never find yourself, like me, a foot soldier in that War.