what if there isn't a cure?

One of the things I admire most about women is the way you rush to support a friend (or a stranger, even) in distress.  Take breast cancer.  I’m moved when I see a picture of a woman who has lost her hair to chemotherapy surrounded by friends who have shaved their heads in support.  I think you would do anything for your sisters.  You walk, run, and ride bikes in the race for the cure. 

But what if there isn’t a cure? 

The portrait above was taken in the heroic style popular after World War II.  It’s a most American picture.  You see a young couple holding their children, framed against the sky in a way that makes them seem a little bigger than life, bravely striding into a promising future.  The Quonset hut (a low-cost portable building left over from the war) is their home.  Who are they?  I remember them as Uncle Glen and Aunt Adele; they’ve been gone a long time.

Glen was a war hero in my mind, a Marine who fought in the terrible WWII battle for Okinawa.  Adele was an unusually intelligent woman; her home was always extra nice.  She likely planted and cared for the sweet peas in the corner of the picture.  The children are my cousins Linda and Vicki; later there was a son, Rick. 

And the future they were striding into?  It was brief—each died in their early thirties.  Glen in an accident; Adele of breast cancer, an unusual case, given her youth.  Perhaps the sudden loss of her husband was a factor.  As a young boy I was a spectator to the tragedy of their deaths.  Their orphaned children, Linda, Vicki and Rick, were taken into our home, so I was also witness to how hard it is for young children to lose their parents. 

This childhood memory is my only qualification to write about breast cancer; maybe it’s enough.  So I repeat the question, “What if there isn’t a cure?”  In a caring way, I sometimes ask women, “What should you do to prevent breast cancer?”  The most frequent response is to get regular mammograms.  Then I point out that a mammogram is for when you already have cancer and repeat the question.  Most women are unsure; a few know a preventative measure or two.  But that’s about it. 

So in memory of my Aunt Adele, and with the hope of not adding to the burden of the breast cancer survivors in our audience, I offer ten steps to reduce a woman’s risk to breast cancer.  This is not my work; it is based on a 2007 meta-study done by experts working for the American Institute for Cancer Research.  I have added guidance from work by other scientists.  With time this list should get better, but it’s the best I could find. (If you've been following our weekly Healthy Changes since January, you'll see that you are already doing many of these steps.)

1. Avoid alcohol.  If you choose to drink, limit alcohol to one drink per day. (It’s presumed you are avoiding tobacco.)

2. Stay lean.  As lean as possible within the healthy weight range.  (Elevated body fat is a risk factor after the teen years.)

3. Be physically active.  Every day, for at least 30 minutes. 

4. Have children early (in your adult years) and as often as you choose.  Breast-feed infants at least six months.

5. Limit sugar to the AHA daily guideline of 6 tsp. for women and 9 for men.  Avoid sugary drinks and limit consumption of candy as well as sugary breakfast cereals and bread products.  Less is better.

6. Limit intake of red meats and dairy; avoid all processed meats. 

7. Eat a varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.  (These foods are an excellent source of protective antioxidants including vitamins A and C.)

8. Eat food, not pills (unless prescribed by your doctor).  Avoid the use of multivitamin pills, or supplements to reduce cancer risk.  (See AJCN March 24, 2010, “Multivitamin use and breast cancer incidence in a prospective cohort of Swedish women”.)  Hormone replacement therapy is also a risk factor for breast cancer.

9. Maintain a healthy level of vitamin D with moderate sunshine where possible.

10. Eat healthy fats.  Avoid all trans fats (noted by the word hydrogenated in the ingredient list).  Eat natural fats like olive oil and butter in moderation and minimize vegetable oil products.  (Limiting food with vegetable oils like chips, will improve the important ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats as well as reduce salt intake.)

The AICR recommends that cancer survivors—after receiving treatment—also follow their preventative steps.  Readers are invited to share their experience or any other guidance on how to prevent breast cancer.

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Reader Comments (28)


My question is about dairy, why avoid that? I feel that women are encouraged to drink milk and eat yogurt several times a day for health reasons and to stay slim. I was just curious as to the reasoning.

Thanks! I love this blog, I find it encouraging and inspring. I appreciate you taking the time to write it.


March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

that title gave me chills...but its very very possible that there isn't.

thank you for the helpful hints on doing what I can...

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie K

this afternoon i had a breast MRI, and as i was prepped, the radiologist and i talked about why there isn't a cure for cancer yet. with all the technology advances, how is it that we haven't figured out a cure?!

until there is, we can only hope that we're doing the best we can to prevent an occurrence. thank you for helping -- your post should be read by every woman. despite the fact that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35 and died at 41, i didn't make the healthiest choices in early adulthood. but at age 37, i am on the right track and am checked so frequently that i'm actually concerned about the effects of the many mammograms i've already had. MRI's were added to the yearly check routine last year. sorry this comment is so long - your post really spoke to me today.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjen

Rachel, thanks for raising the point of dairy, which we enjoy in our diet. (Hope I haven't offended any dairy farmers, we need them and they deserve better prices for their product.)

The language is not to "avoid" dairy but to "limit', as in "sparing" use. Butter is considered dairy and is recommended under healthy fats. We'll get to consumption of milk in a future post. I like milk but drink it sparingly. And I likewise love cheese. I wish I could buy both from cows fed the traditional way, in pastures.

Limiting meat and milk helps keep our intake of animal protein down, leaving room for a majority of plant protein. To understand more check the book by T. Colin Campbell, "The China Study". I will make it the subject of a future post. Hope this helps.

March 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I once asked this of a breast cancer researcher that I met, and the biggest one, he told me, was having a baby before 30 and breast feeding that baby. You have that in your list, but I was interested to hear that in my early 20s rather than well into my 30s.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Sarah, the researcher gave you good advice. If the numbers inferred a ranking, I would have listed this first. A few years ago it was hard to find a "preventive" list; now they are becoming more common and that's a good trend. Most lists don't include guidance on timing of children or breast feeding. Perhaps this good counsel is out of fashion. Best to you.

March 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Here is my question: What about those of us with health problems who will not be able to breastfeed?

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCindy Baldwin

Cindy, my father had significant health problems in his childhood and it caused him to be an advocate of eating well (guided by the Word of Wisdom) and to eat from your own garden. He made it to his 90th year, was a gardener to the end, and taught his children some good lessons. I'm thinking that you could also teach us a few things about dealing with adversity. Our best to you.

March 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I just discovered your blog. Very nice. I appreciate your writing style.

A couple thoughts I had from your post...

I wonder if the term sparingly in the word of wisdom refers more to the idea of not wasting, using all parts of an animal and making it last. I think you are right in saying we should limit our consumption, but I do want to clear up that it is okay to have a bit of meat in every meal during the day, so long as it is balanced with the rest. I think the same is with dairy.. but quality dairy is hard to get these days.

It seems that cancer is so prevalent everywhere nowadays and so are wrong ideas about what health is. I believe that true health comes from keeping simple, staying close to the source, avoiding extremes, and keeping balance (that balance can differ from person to person because of needs and circumstance, but we must follow the Spirit in knowing what our personal balance is). I think it is important to note that by using the light of Christ within us we can distinguish good from wrong in our food choices.

I look forward to future posts.

March 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSaylor

What are your thoughts on "I can't believe it's not butter'? I've used butter instead of margarine for a few years now with the justification that even though butter has more fat at least it wasn't trans fat. Well, I read an article somewhere that recommended "I can't believe it's not butter" because it still didn't have any trans fat, but had less saturated fat than butter. I'm not sure if I buy it?

March 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Jennifer, you ask a good question about butter substitutes. I like butter. I'm cautious about factory-made butter substitutes. I think a fair rule is that any new factory-made food won't kill us outright—I think the FDA protects us from such toxicity. But whether a new food will kill us slowly is a more difficult question. All the man-made fat products of last century—Crisco shortening, margarine, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, P&G's Olestra—embraced at first for their modernity, have turned out to be harmful in the long run. Traditional fats, in moderation, taste better and, from what I can see, are healthier. Other readers may like to comment.

March 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

You have way more faith in the FDA than I do. I'm afraid that it is more of a friend to big business and the so called economy than to our national health concerns. If it's going to hurt some big business lobby like dairy or corporate agribusiness or big pharma we, the public, draw the short straw. The list of things to consider that may contribute to cancer is a good one. However, my sister-in-law died from breast cancer and she had one of the healthiest diets I know. So, I think we also have to consider being proactive about the toxins bombarding us in so many other ways too, cleaning products, water contamination, air quality, pesticides, herbicides, antiperspirants, hair color products, I could go on but I think that says it pretty good.

March 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia Hylton

@ Rachel: I have to agree with Cynthia about the big business of the FDA/food industry. As a trained Family & Consumer Science teacher (HomeEc), I took field trips to our local dairy council and extension offices. Certainly they are not out to harm us, but they are FOR PROFIT, and some of the propaganda I came home with showed it. (A cassette tape of children's music that revolves around dairy consumption--including a song with two lines repeated over and over, one of them being, "Chocolate milk is good for you!") They want to sell their product.
Also, with the behemoth food industry (including government entities), if a problem arises it will be years before you see signifant change on you grocery store shelf. It's difficult for a mack truck to make sharp turns....
That being said, haven't Asian cultures survived for centuries without 3 servings of milk per day and avoided crippling osteoporosis, generally speaking? What's the difference for them? We have dairy sensitivities in my family (to milk and soy proteins) so we use a lot of rice milk. Since that's not exactly a naturally occurring substance, I do often worry about mine and my small children's bones. I don't quite have faith in the bioavailability of the calcium that gets thrown into all of the "fortified" foods out there.

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTiff

@ Tiff: It is the process milk goes through nowadays that causes milk sensitivities and allergies in people.. pasteurization, homogenization, hormones given to cows, etc... proteins in the milk are changed in such extreme processes so the body becomes sensitive.
Good preparation is just as essential as good food. Each step in the process has a specific effect on the out-product. Have you also noticed how a meal turns out so much more healthful, digestible, and enjoyable when each step of the process is made with patience, love, and care?

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSaylor

Saylor, I'm not saying you are not right, but having a very low tolerance for lactose, I can say, that I notice absolutely no difference between the milk I can buy in the store and the organic milk I used to get from my grandmothers neighbour, the one that came directly from the milk bucket after milking the cow, and that was still warm. Well, let me rephrase it, the later tasted incredible, but they both caused diahrrea, stomach cramps and nausea unless I medicated before.

Tiff: Calcium can be obtained from other sources than milk, leafy green vegetables are a good source as are nuts and seeds (tried almond milk, it's really tasty), beans, broccoli, kale, quinoa and several other food items. A friend of mine actually used to grind egg shells and sprinkle into food as they are full of calcium and she wanted to avoid osteporosis as it ran in her family but preferred a natural additive, that was also freely available to her.

March 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMims

@Mims: Thanks for bringing up that point.
I do, though, think eating/ drinking milk products can actually be something worked up to if you are sensitive, even possibly intolerant. There is a lot involved when it comes to being able to digest milk...
Old-world practices involved breaking down animal proteins in order to make it easier to digest... such as culturing milk products and brining meat before consuming... but I think too that if we have the right foundation and balance of rightly prepared food built up in our body, we can tolerate most foods. The problem comes when we don't have access to a lot of rightly-prepared food.

I have actually been where you are. I had a real problem with milk products for a while, but I have worked my body back to the point where I can eat/drink them again and I don't experience any digestive problems, as long as I don't eat in excess.
I don't know if this is true or not, but I have read about it having something to do with how when you drink milk or have milk products that have things our body doesn't like, our body remembers the protein related to that and so when we drink/eat that protein later, even if it is organic/raw, our body attacks it thinking it is related to the bad stuff. So, I don't know, that may lend for some explanation.
Just a note... I found too that when I started taking calcium supplements I was more tolerant of milk... I am not sure why or if it was even related, but I thought I would just put that out there.

Some cultures have more a tolerance of milk products than others depending on your ancestry. Tolerances and intolerances in food can actually be built up over many generations. So, some may not be able to get their body to the point of accepting milk products, but their children or children's children might be able to tolerate it if it is introduced slowly.

Also a note to Tiff... bone broths are a good source of calcium as well.

I apologize to Skip-- didn't mean to cause an off-topic discussion on here. Just wanted to clear things up.

March 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSaylor

Saylor, a purpose of the blog is to provide a forum for nutrition topics so feel free to contribute. A future post will address the issue of milk so we're not done. Milk is food, a traditional food in our culture, but it's also a business. As the size of corporations grow, the more disdainful they become of the consumer, it seems. The USDA, unfortunately, is more pro-business than pro-consumer. So we must look out for ourselves. Best to you.

March 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Just a note regarding #4, "Have children early ... and as often as you choose." This is certainly good advice in the context of breast cancer prevention, but it is perhaps not the best advice in terms of nutrition and overall health. Specifically, the WHO and other international bodies recommend three to five years between births, as shorter intervals have been found to be risk factors for maternal and child malnutrition, morbidity and mortality. A mother's body needs time to recover from pregnancy and re-build nutritional stores, especially if she is breastfeeding. So, while intervals shorter than three years between births may offer a reduction in risk and subsequent prevalence of breast cancer, I would argue that this benefit (to a relatively small percentage of women) does not outweigh the increased risks (to all women). I would therefore personally advise women to space births according to the WHO recommendations (and I have done this myself, with two children who are four years apart).

March 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSheela

Sheela, thank you for sharing. I think this topic should be reserved for comment by the mothers, so I add just one thought: The recovery time between pregnancies, it seems, is primarily influenced by the quality of the diet and other health-related lifestyle issues. A healthy diet is uncommon in our society, unfortunately. In recent decades we have seen large increases in diet-related conditions including autoimmune illnesses like celiac disease, or infertility among young women (fertility clinics are a growth business!), or early baldness among young men, and the explosion of overweight and obese people. So something is clearly different. Mothers, what do you think?

March 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Thank you for this post. As a breast cancer survivor myself (at age 37), I am very interested in learning ways to prevent this disease - not just be "aware" of it. I have great hope that a cure will indeed be found. I have to keep that hope alive for me and my children. (I have five, two of which are girls). In the meantime I am trying to learn as much as I can of how cancer responds to what we put in our bodies - or what we don't put in our bodies. I had mentioned on a previous post that I was VERY vitamin D deficient. I had no idea either. While doing my own research, I discovered what you mentioned on #8 about multivitamins. I had never heard that before and was surprised at the correlation. I was wondering if you know any more as to why a multivitamin is not recommended? And how does this play into our children? All my life I have been told to take a good multivitamin and I have been giving them to my children as well. There is so much to learn and to know, but I do believe that we can't be led astray when we follow the Word of Wisdom. I am simply trying to do my best and pray that God will help me where I lack.

Thank you, again for this great blog and for sharing what you learn.

March 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDanae

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