Optimizing Prevention – How to Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer

Kelly Jamieson Thomas


Every October we don our pink ribbons and draw awareness to breast cancer. This tradition is a wonderful way to bring us together to discuss how we may move forward in our fight against breast cancer. In the United States, breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and the second leading cause of cancer death in women. During their lifetime, 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer—a startling statistic for any woman to face. Of those diagnosed, only 5-10% carry genetic mutations in BRCA genes and less than 15% have family members with breast cancer, which indicates that most breast cancer cases are not hereditary. This gives us hope that we can lower breast cancer risk through prevention. In honor of breast cancer awareness month, let’s focus on how we can optimize prevention in addition to how we can develop a cure.


What can we do to lower the percentage of women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer below 12%? We can change our diet to include particular foods that may aid our bodies in preventing cancer, thereby lowering our risk. Although research on this has had conflicting results, there are many studies that demonstrate that diet affects cancer risk. When patients are treated with chemotherapy, tamoxifen, herceptin, and etcetera the results aren’t always a “cured” patient, but we still treat patients with the therapies we have available. In light of this, shouldn’t we pay more heed to the studies demonstrating that consuming certain foods may also help us prevent disease onset? Two changes we can make to lower our risk of breast cancer are increasing our dietary fiber intake and eating more cruciferous vegetables.


High Fiber Intake and Breast Cancer

Several pieces of epidemiologic and scientific research support the link between higher fiber intake and lower breast cancer risk. A meta-analysis that analyzed the results of over 15 studies examining the role of dietary fiber in breast cancer prevention, published in Annals of Oncology, found that the greatest reduction in risk (approximately 25%) was observed when women consumed over 25 grams of soluble fiber per day. Studies have shown that modified citrus pectin (a soluble fiber) reduced tumor growth, angiogenesis, and metastasis in mice. A diet high in fiber reduced mammary tumor incidence in rat models. Epidemiologic studies have found lower levels of circulating estrogen and androstenedione (a precursor to estrogen) associated with high fiber intake. The anti-cancer protection fiber effects may be the result of fiber binding estrogen in the bowels, resulting in the removal of some estrogen, thereby preventing it from affecting the cells in breast tissue. High intake of dietary fiber also reduces the risk of becoming overweight/obese, which is a well-established risk for postmenopausal breast cancer. For me, this evidence is a great reason to add soluble fiber to my meals.


How can we up our soluble fiber intake?

For breakfast, try a bowl of oatmeal topped with strawberries, blueberries, and flax seeds. For snack, enjoy an apple, orange, or pear. For dinner, add some kidney beans or lentils to your meal. The average American consumes 15 grams of fiber per day. To reach 25+ grams, and potentially decrease your risk up to 25%, just add 1/2 cup of beans or two apples each day.


Cruciferous Vegetables and Breast Cancer

Cruciferous vegetables are another source of food that can offer us protection from cancer. Cruciferous vegetables are packed with carotenoids, powerful antioxidants that help reduce inflammation caused by free radicals. Cruciferous vegetables are also abundant in glucosinolates, sulfur-containing chemicals that are broken down during digestion, forming biologically active compounds (indoles, nitriles, thiocyanates, isothiocyanates) that act as chemo protective agents. Indole-3-carbinol (an indole) and sulforaphane (an isothiocyanate), two of active compounds formed when cruciferous vegetables are digested, have both been shown to inhibit cancer growth in mice and rates and induce apoptosis, programmed cell death, in human tumor cells. Indoles and isothiocyanates may offer anti-cancer protection by causing an increase in the levels of BRCA1 and BRCA2 proteins aid in repairing damaged DNA, a decrease in inflammatory molecules, and an increase in detoxification enzymes that protect DNA against damage from carcinogens and free radicals. A meta-analysis, published in Breast, of 13 epidemiologic studies indicated that high cruciferous vegetable consumption was associated with a 15% decrease in breast cancer risk. A study of European women who ate only one serving per week of cruciferous vegetables indicated that their breast cancer risk decreased up to 17%.


How can we add these extraordinary vegetables to our daily life?

Make a delicious salad with arugula, watercress, and kale. Snack on lightly steamed broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower for an added dose of glucosinolates.


[quote]Let’s focus on how we can optimize prevention in addition to how we can develop a cure.[/quote]

The concept that changes in our diet can lower our cancer risk is not a new one. We know it’s possible to lower our risk by making conscious decisions about the foods we eat—the fuel for our cells to run properly through the course of our long lives. If we make small changes now, only two of which include increasing our fiber and cruciferous vegetable intake, we can help prevent cancer. Let’s draw awareness to breast cancer prevention and lower our risk through changes in the way we eat.

The Future of Science Majors

Celine Cammarata

On my first day of freshman biology, the lecture hall – the largest my college had to offer, seating over 700 – was nearly full with students eager to launch their scientific study. By our final exam, a generous sprinkling of empty seats could be seen. And by the start of the next semester, less than half the space was taken.


Such attrition of students from STEM majors is a serious issue for many universities, leading a group of researchers at Yale and the University of Wisconsin to recently propose a comprehensive framework for improving retention of STEM students.


The authors emphasize increasing students’ confidence and motivation in pursuing STEM degrees, focusing on a few key tactics. Giving students the chance to perform real research – not the scripted variety offered in most college course labs – within their first few semesters can stimulate curiosity and encourage students to think of themselves as scientists, which in turn improves students’ confidence about their STEM studies. The authors suggest swapping the traditional lab component of introductory science classes for research-based courses to reap these benefits in an economical way.


Similarly, replacing the huge, staid lectures typical of much STEM coursework with more engaging teaching methods to encourage active learning early in the undergraduate career helps keep students excited and interested and bolsters mastery of concepts. Of course, such classes can be challenging to teach, so training instructors in techniques that foster active learning is also vital.


Finally, being part of a community of STEM learners, such as a study group or club, can improve motivation for sticking with a STEM major. These communities offer support for STEM students, stimulate active discussion of scientific topics, encourage self-identification with science professionals, and provide additional resources for learning.


The authors suggest an interwoven implementation of all three key features – early research, active learning, and community – to improve persistence of STEM majors. Interestingly, the article is framed in the context of addressing a developing deficit of STEM graduates reported in 2012 by the Presidents’ Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, but comes at a time when most of us graduate students are perpetually warned that there are not enough jobs for us. Perhaps STEM majors will see better retention when prospects after graduation appear brighter.

Time for Action on Americans’ Health?

Celine Cammarata

Arguably, health research is only as good as what you do with it: it is not knowledge alone but informed action that drives real differences.  So think a group of Columbia University scholars who recently penned an emphatic editorial calling on the President to take action in righting the declining state of health in the United States and in facing the long-ignored societal causes underlying these health challenges, as described in a January report by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.


The report painted a bleak picture of America’s health compared to that of other developed nations and emphasized the role of socioeconomic causes in fueling this decline.  But, the editorial authors point out, the United States faces a long history of ignoring societal and public sources of poor health in favor of an individualistic approach, stressing the personal behaviors, such as diet and smoking, that impact health.  Cultural and historical factors (think McCarthyism), the scholars suggest, have pushed socially-based tactics for improving health into the shadows, despite a large body of research linking socioeconomic status to wellness.  Moreover, it’s not only those in lower income brackets whose health is affected by social factors; indeed, even well-off Americans are less healthy than their peers in many other nations.  Why?  It’s time, the authors indicate, to look beyond individual behaviors at the systemic causes of ill health that might influence these behaviors and undermine health.


Despite it’s rather unsettling conclusions, when the original report was published it met with relatively little attention and no major policy reaction – and this, the authors argue, is the main problem.  Faced with ample evidence of an ever-growing health crises fueled by social causes, ignorance is no longer an option.  It is time to put our knowledge to use.

Lessons Learned from the Science Fair

Thalyana Smith-Vikos

When I first started my PhD at Yale University four years ago, one of the program directors held a meeting for new students to learn about extracurricular activities on campus and around New Haven, CT. At first I was a little confused; how did they expect me to participate in all of these programs while still completing my course work and teaching requirements and working in the lab full-time?

However, once I began my lab rotations and had conversations with older graduate students, I quickly realized that many PhD candidates in our program devote a great deal of their time to volunteering for community-wide science activities outside of the lab, Continue reading “Lessons Learned from the Science Fair”