Greening the Cancer Cause: Changing the Way Women Think About Breast Health

From April to October, one well-intentioned organization after another is asking for money to support “a cure for cancer” or cancer research. As a cancer survivor and naturopathic doctor, I donate to a brilliant program created by three courageous women in Canmore, Alberta -the Pink and Green Ribbon campaign. (Now called Rethink Breast Cancer). Committed to stopping cancer before it starts these women put into action local initiatives designed to clean up the environment and bring awareness to the chemicals we put in our bodies with the goal of making our communities healthier places to live.

The pink represents a commitment to creating breast cancer-free communities through promoting healthy breast education and focusing on prevention. The green reflects a stand for addressing the connection between the environment and women’s health.

With the slogan, “Love Your Planet. Love Your Body. Love Your Life,” the campaign co-founders, including my naturopathic colleague Dr. Monika Herwig, create local initiatives designed to clean up the environment and make our communities healthier places to live.

These women, all mothers of daughters, also want to change the way women think about breast health. They’re not comfortable with the current statistics and predictions for breast cancer (i.e., One in nine will develop breast cancer). In their desire to make a difference, they declare the opposite: “Eight in nine women will have healthy breasts for their lifetime.” This subtle positive shift is extremely empowering. I find that one’s mental health is often an overlooked aspect of one’s physical health – and the two are intimately connected to our overall sense of well-being. What would happen to the current statistics for breast cancer if we took a positive approach? Let’s do more than wonder! They posed the following questions and started a conversation around the topics below:

  • What if we all started talking more about breast health?
  • What if healthier breast tissue and less exposure to carcinogens made our breasts less susceptible to cancerous changes?
  • What if all the products available to us as consumers were good for the planet (soil, water and air quality) and for our bodies?
  • What if girls at puberty were taught simple healthy breast practices?
  • What if all women understood the anatomy of their breasts?
  • What if all communities in North America became pesticide-free?

The campaign started on Earth Day and ended on Rachel Carson Day. Rachel Carson was an environmentalist in the 1960’s who wrote a book called “Silent Spring”. She was a pioneer in creating awareness regarding the link between our health and the environment. The Rocky Mountain Soap Company hosts a running event during this time and it is an amazing event that typically sells out – I encourage you to participate in this event.

The campaign also provided daily practical solutions for keeping the critical relationship between the environment and health in mind, using the topics soil, air, water, our energy and our bodies.

Our soil

In medical school, Dr. Sat Dharam Kaur was one of my favourite teachers. Kaur, who has a naturopathic practice in Owen Sound, Ontario, specializing in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer, says, “Not unlike our bodies, soil is a living biological entity composed of a community of organisms, organic matter and minerals. A healthy soil provides a high mineral and nutritional reservoir to nurture the vitality of the plants and, in turn, the animals (including humans) that are sustained by it. To establish good health, we need to honour the cycle of life, restore mineral balance to the soil and our food, and eliminate from the environment and our bodies harmful chemicals and heavy metals.”

Healthy soil action steps…

  • Purchase organically grown food or grow your own food and discourage the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
  • Embrace your playful spirit and dig in the dirt.
  • Connect with the earth and see what you find. Encourage children to join you.
  • Purchase organically grown food or grow your own food and discourage the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Watch CBC’s Wendy Mesley in “Chasing the Cancer Answer”. I was struck how, in documenting her own breast cancer journey and quest for answers, Mesley also revealed that cancer has become a business-an extremely profitable business for pharmaceutical companies.

Our water

“Rivers and lakes are the earth’s umbilical cord that brings us water and minerals; the oceans are our collective amniotic fluid. If the rivers and oceans are contaminated, so will the water be that makes up 70 percent of our physical structure,” says Dr. Kaur.

Healthy water action steps…

  • Filter your water and store in a glass container. My favourite is a reverse osmosis system with builtin activated charcoal, if you can afford it. Otherwise, go with the activated carbon block filter without silver. Store your filtered water in a glass container.
  • Stop using plastic water bottles. Health Canada has acknowledged the health risks associated with bisphenol-A, a toxic compound found in plastic – make the switch to a glass or stainless steel water bottle available at many health food stores. This will reduce the toxic load on your body, as well as decrease plastic refuse for the planet.
  • Drink water: The basic rule of thumb is to consume half of your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water – this is a MINIMUM recommendation. For example, a 140- pound person needs to drink a daily minimum of seven 10-ounce glasses of water each day.
  • Make a commitment to the purity of your drinking water and to the lakes, rivers and water table in your area. Clean up a local river, shoreline or stream by going for a hike and picking up garbage.
  • Prevent dehydration. When we are water deficient, the ability of our kidneys to filter toxins suffers and we have fewer stools. Headaches, fatigue, joint pain, inability to concentrate and digestive disturbances increase.

Our air

According to Dr. Kaur, “New plant growth continues to release oxygen, while carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants. The balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide ensures the quality of the air we breathe…Take steps to restore clean air in our homes, workplaces and communities.”

Healthy air action steps…

  • Reduce carbon emissions and choose to ride your bike, walk, car pool or take transit.
  • Discover the benefits of deep breathing and how it affects all facets of your life.  Being conscious of your breath in difficult moments can completely change your outlook!
  • Get some relief and take off your bra! Feel the air you breathe. There is a 21-fold greater chance of developing breast cancer in women who wear their bras more than 12 hours daily and a 113-fold increase in breast cancer incidence among women who wear their bras all the time. One of the factors that promotes tumour growth is poor microcirculation in the area where tumours develop (often due to impingement of tissue by underwire bras).

Our energy

“Our sun, from which we derive most of our planetary heat, light and energy, has existed for five billion years, and, like many of us, is considered to be in middle age. Without the sun, there would be no plant or animal life on Earth…” says Dr. Kaur.

Healthy energy action steps…

  • Invest your energy in activities, hobbies, volunteer work or causes you feel dedicated to and excited about that develop your skills and abilities.
  • Learn to define your needs and gifts.  Connect with groups of like-minded individuals throughout your life who support and validate you.
  • If possible resolve conflict as it occurs, rather than holding it inside you, or let it go. Find an outlet for expressing your feelings (be they anger, grief or despair) – such as journaling, art, counseling, song writing, etc. And then if that really isn’t working, do up your shoelaces and get out for a walk, run or bike and breathe it off.
  • Find a spiritual practice or exercise that you feel connected to. It is my personal belief that a connection to a spirit, whatever your chosen practice is, is critical and vital to healing yourself and the current state of the planet. If possible resolve conflict as it occurs, rather than holding it inside you, or let it go.

Our bodies

“The dramatic rise in breast cancer rates over the last half-century is not so much due to female hormones but to environmental chemicals that mimic female hormones and our body’s inability to eliminate them,” notes Dr. Kaur.

Healthy body action steps…

  • Minimize your exposure to xenoestrogens (see below), such as those found in plastic.
  • Eliminate plastic residues from your body by doing a supervised sauna detoxification.
  • Avoid plastic cling wrap. Use paper towels to wrap sandwiches. Reduce consumption of fatty foods packaged in plastic and heat-sealed containers.
  • Before accepting the new plastic coating treatment for your children’s teeth, ask your dentist whether it contains bisphenol-A.
  • Learn to read labels and properly dispose of unhealthy household cleaners.
  • Get comfortable with doing a self breast-exam. Your breasts will be easiest to examine right after your period. If you are not comfortable doing a self breast exam, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. Ask her/him to teach you how to do a self breast-exam. Get comfortable with the importance of breast massage.
  • Lastly, I encourage you to purchase Dr. Kaur’s books, available online at Chapters/Indigo. Also, make an appointment with a naturopathic doctor and to take the necessary steps you need towards loving yourself, the planet and your life.

With one in nine women developing breast cancer, most women think they are going to be a cancer statistic, and the current media is cultivating a culture where we just assume we will get cancer. This needs to change. More specifically, we need to revolutionize how we think about and address our health.

Understanding Hormones and Breast Health

An article about breast cancer would be incomplete without mentioning the impact of hormones on our health. Hormones are chemical messengers our endocrine system, responsible for regulating many cellular processes. Hormone receptors are located throughout the body. Breast tissue is one area that contains a high amount of receptors for the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.

There are three forms of estrogen (estriol, estradiol and estrone). Estradiol (E2) and estrone (E1) are associated with increased breast cancer risk while estriol (E3) may have protective properties.

The other important estrogen to know about is xenoestrogen-manmade synthetic chemicals found in our environment and known as estrogen imposters or hormonal disruptors. Sources of xenoestrogens include synthetic estrogens (birth control pill, HRT, fertility drugs, and hormones in meats and dairy products), chemicals leached into food from microwaving in plastic containers or in plastic wrap, certain detergents, plastics, cleaning supplies, herbicides and pesticides.

The body cannot tell the difference between a man-made chemical xenoestrogen and the estrogen the body naturally produces. As such, xenoestrogens disrupt our hormonal balance and messaging system. In addition, they attach more firmly to estrogen receptors and persist in our bodies and the environment longer than natural hormones because we do not have efficient ways to eliminate them. As a result, we are chronically exposed to a higher level of estrogen stimulation than necessary.

To add insult to injury, the accumulation of xenoestrogens typically occurs in our fatty tissue, such as the breasts. The cellular accumulation of fat-soluble toxins and xenoestrogens in the breast tissue can make the cells there more vulnerable to abnormal changes and cancer.

On a positive note, there are ways to help remove toxins from our bodies, including proper naturopathic detoxification methods, sauna protocols and homeopathic drainage protocols. Since an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the essential approach is to address the cause by decreasing the presence of these compounds in our lives and on our planet.

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