Defeating Breast Cancer

can exercise help prevent breast cancer

Breast cancer is a killer that doesn’t care about race, religious beliefs, or socio­economic status. Christine Horner, MD, a nationally recognized surgeon and the author of Waking the Warrior Goddess, says that once a woman reaches her mid-20s she catches cancer’s attention. Dr. Horner went on to write that “breast cancer prefers a slower, easier target, so it particularly likes older women … And the more meat on their bones—actually, the more extra fat—the better.” The good news here is that exercise of all types reduces your cancer risk—so you are not powerless in this equation.

Researchers now know that excess fat cells pose a definitive breast cancer risk. These fat cells are known to accelerate the production of growth factors like estrogen and insulin, both of which can increase cancer cell production. Women who are overweight can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer from 25 to 50 percent by merely losing five percent of their body weight. Henry S. Lodge, MD, author of Younger Next Year, writes that “When you don’t exercise, your muscles let out a steady trickle of chemicals that tell every cell to decay, day after day after day … The hard reality of our internal physiology and genetics is that exercise acts as the master switch that instructs the cells to grow, recharge, detoxify, and maintain homeostasis (internal balance).”

Staying Ahead of Breast Cancer

While breast cancer can target any woman, knowing its preferences and how to counter its negative force is key to stopping this imposing adversary. To that end, new research has revealed that exercise is cancer’s most powerful adversary. Medical and health officials are encouraging women to run, as doing so awakens many dormant hormones and sends cascades of immune-boosting fighting chemicals as well as surveillance systems that help beat breast cancer at its own game. This new approach to reducing the risk of breast cancer reoccurrence is a result of recent pioneering studies conducted at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital by Michelle Holmes, MD.

Dr. Holmes and colleagues reported that women with breast cancer who walk three or more hours a week (or exercise more strenuously for shorter periods) have a lower risk of dying from breast cancer than those who exercise less. While past thinking by medical professionals focused on more rest, new studies show that women who have breast cancer can increase their survival rate by 20 to 50 percent based on the duration of their exercise routine.

Identifying Early Biomarkers

There is a compound called C-reactive protein that is elevated in women who have breast cancer. Concurrent research of other cancers—including colon, uterine, and ovarian—has also shown a link to elevated C-reactive protein levels. This biomarker is also now reported as an independent risk factor in men. Large numbers of C-reactive protein mean higher risk of heart disease and increased mortality rates. All data thus far indicates that exercise reduces the production of C-reactive protein, and in the process can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer by 70 percent. Studies indicate that exercise also reduces nausea and fatigue from radiation and chemotherapy, two common conventional treatments used to rid the body of cancer.

Exercise Early in Life Reduces Breast Cancer Risk

While many studies have focused on how exercise protects postmenopausal women against breast cancer, there are now scores of studies that have investigated exercise’s role in reducing the incidence of breast cancer in younger women. The Cancer Prevention Program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle followed 64,777 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study II for six years. Data collected from the study showed that high levels of physical activity from age 12 to age 22 had the greatest long-term impact against cancer. For example, active women engaging in 39 or more metabolic equivalent hours or met hours per week of exercise over their lifetime had a 23 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer.

As a point of reference here, metabolic equivalent per hour or met hours is a measure of the intensity of a physical activity. For example, light gardening for an hour equals 2.0 met hours, while walking at an average pace for an hour would equal 3.0 met hours. The 39 met hours referenced in the Nurses Study is equivalent to 3.25 hours a week of running or 13 hours a week of walking. The women in the study conducted by Dr. Holmes at Brigham and Women’s Hospital averaged 3 to 8.9 met hours a week.

Breast Cancer Research is Ongoing

In a related study Polish researchers reported similar findings. Recreational physical activity was examined for four age groups of 250 women: 14–20, 21–31, 35–50, and over 50. Higher amounts of lifetime total physical activity among all of the women in this study was associated with a reduction in breast cancer risk. However, these researchers found that women who started running or were engaged in recreational activity after the age of 20 had the highest risk of devel­oping breast cancer, higher than women who were active between 14 and 20 years of age and were inactive after age 20.

Dr. Holmes found in her research that the women who benefited the most from exercise were those who were diagnosed with hormone-related cancers. Other studies have shown that women who engaged in moderate-to-vigorous activities reduced breast cancer risk regardless of underlying causes of the cancer’s development. In addition, researchers at the University of Alberta and the Alberta Cancer Board compared the lifestyles of more than 1,200 women recently diagnosed with breast cancer with the same number of women who were cancer-free. The researchers found that the women who exercised over a lifetime drastically reduced their risk of developing breast cancer.

The Sexual/Hormonal Chemical Connection

Another related area than has prompted more research into the concept of exercise-induced immunity is that of sexual intercourse. What researchers have found is that women who have sex more than once a month have a lower risk of developing breast cancer than those who are less sexually active.

Maria Weiss, MD, is the founder of a nonprofit educational organization called Living Beyond Breast Cancer. Her research shows that women who retain their intimacy both during and after breast cancer fare much better in their overall recovery. During periods of sexual arousal up to orgasm, women experience increased secretions of the powerful feel-good hormone oxytocin, the antiaging/antistress hormone DHEA, and natural painkilling hormones called endorphins. Testos­terone is heightened as well.

Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, a well-known integrative holistic health practitioner, reminds us that an orgasm releases about 10 mg of oxytocin, which plays a key role in regulating the hypothalamus gland. The hypothalamus controls most of the other glands in the body, which is why it is sometimes called the master gland. Your thyroid gland controls all of your body’s metabolic activities, and the adrenal glands also produce some of your rebuilding hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factors (IGF-1). These compounds are all referred to as the body’s internal youth and vitality hormones.

Oxytocin, Human Sensuality, and Cancer Prevention

Recently researchers at Harvard University estab­lished a clear link between reduced uncoupling protein (UCP-2) activity and decreased innate immune surveillance activity.

Uncoupling proteins are found in the mitochondria, the primary focal point in the cell where energy production and fat burning occur. Uncoupling proteins have a direct effect on your ability to increase ATP (adenosine triphosphate) production. ATP is the primary fuel your body’s cells use to carry out life’s physiological processes, one of which is to perpetuate and increase the cells’ aerobic (with oxygen) system. Researchers decades ago discovered that cancer has a difficult time surviving in a well-oxygenated body.

It is oxytocin—appropriately known as the cuddling hormone—that amplifies our sensuality and upregulates the actions of UCP-2 proteins. Furthermore, over the last two decades consistent data have definitively associated declining DHEA levels with decreased functional limitations and increased rates of mortality in both men and women. Several studies have linked high levels of DHEA (the most abundant hormone in the body) to a reduced risk of developing breast, prostate, and several other cancers. DHEA also has a powerful influence on reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The problem with DHEA, however, is that production drops rapidly after one’s early-20s.

It’s Somewhere Within

From all indicators, the earlier you start exercising and engaging in physical activity, the more you reduce your risk of developing breast cancer and the greater your odds of surviving the ordeal, should you face it. (Do consult with your healthcare provider, however, before starting any exercise routine.)

As a result of these findings there are now a number of local, regional, and national fitness and wellness centers that conduct supervised exercise programs formulated just for breast cancer survivors. Deepak Chopra, MD—the world-renowned expert of mind-body medicine—states that the force for healing lies somewhere within the patient. If you are a breast cancer survivor, have breast cancer, or are genetically at risk for developing this disorder, get up, get out, and run to daylight to summon the inner forces of your warrior goddess, and defeat cancer at its own game of destruction.

By George L. Redmond, PhD, ND

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