Breast cancer is the leading cause of death among American women between the age of 40-55, and the high prevalence has spawned a very lucrative industry; from mammography and other dangerous or invasive testing methods, to "preventive" double mastectomies and cancer drugs.
Much effort is placed on trying to detect cancer at an earlier stage. Unfortunately, the conventional recommendation to get regular mammograms has shown to be more harmful than helpful, as research shows 10 times as many women are harmed in some way compared to those whose lives are spared by annual mammograms.
Is there a better way to prevent becoming a statistic?
Yes, there is, says Dr. Christiane Northrup, a practicing physician and ob-gyn specialist who has dedicated a good portion of her life to helping women take control of their health.
Dr. Northrup is also a New York Times best-seller author, and is a prominent speaker on natural health issues, especially those related to women, for whom breast health is a major issue.
Having grown up in a health-conscious family where her father was a holistic dentist and her paternal aunt and uncle were conventional medical doctors, she got a chance to see the difference between the two philosophies first-hand.
Her father instilled in her the idea that "It's not about living forever; it's about living well while you're here," and in order to do that, your focus needs to be on living a healthy lifestyle, opposed to searching for and spending your life trying to treat diseases as they crop up.
Dr. Northrup on Disease Screening as Health Care
Conventional medicine, with its focus on diagnosis and treatment of disease, has the side effect of turning everything into a "condition" that needs treatment. According to Dr. Northrup:
"[I]n my ob-gyn residency, I saw a couple of things. One, a woman's body was treated as a disease waiting to happen. Pregnancy was a disease. A normal labor and birth was considered a retrospective diagnosis... Breasts are treated as two pre-malignant lesions sitting on your chest. The whole discussion of women's health is, 'What can go wrong?'
...[W]e think that women's health is disease screening. We think that women's health is pap smears [and] mammograms... [But] that's not feeding cells the nutrients, the thoughts, the emotions that they need in order to continue to reproduce themselves in a healthy way.
The body replaces itself totally every seven years. It will replace itself in a healthy way, depending upon what you're feeding it on all levels."
Mammography Can Turn Healthy Women into Cancer Patients
I've taken a strong, and in some cases controversial position on mammography, and I'm particularly leery of the newer 3D tomosynthesis mammography, which is touted as being so much better but in reality may simply compound the same problems associated with regular mammography, as it increases the amount of harmful (and cancer-causing) ionizing radiation you're exposed to.
Dr. Northrup agrees, calling 3D tomosynthesis "a better mouse trap."
"I keep going back to the work of Gilbert Welch from Dartmouth. I believe it is the most important paper to come out about breast cancer almost in my entire career," she says. "Gil wrote a book called 'Should I Be Tested for Cancer? Maybe Not and Here's Why.' That was in 2004. Now he comes out with a paper that has everyone riled up. It's called 'The Effect of Three Decades of Screening Mammography on Breast Cancer incidents'1[published in the prestigious medical journal New England Journal of Medicine]. He says: 'With the assumption of a constant underlying disease burden, only eight of the 122 additional early-stage cancers diagnosed were expected to progress to advanced disease.
After excluding the transient excess incidence associated with hormone-replacement therapy and adjusting for trends in the incidence of breast cancer among women younger than 40, we estimated that breast cancer was overdiagnosed (i.e., tumors were detected on screening that would never have led to clinical symptoms) in 1.3 million U.S. women in the past 30 years. We estimated that in 2008, breast cancer was overdiagnosed in more than 70,000 women; this accounted for 31 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed.'"
So in 30-year's time, an estimated 1.3 million women were diagnosed with what amounts to "ductal carcinoma in situ," also known as stage zero cancer—or cancer you may die with but not from. It's essentially harmless...
"[Gilbert Welch] pointed to a study [from] way back, of women who died in car accidents in their 40s. They sectioned their breast tissues and found that 40 percent of them – this is normal healthy women dying in car accidents – had evidence of ductal carcinoma in situ that was never going to go anywhere. This is the big dilemma," Dr. Northrup says.
Many Cancers Heal on Their Own...
Another important study was published in November 2008 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.2 This study followed more than 200,000 Norwegian women between the ages of 50 and 64 over two consecutive six-year periods. Half received regular periodic breast exams or regular mammograms, while the others had no regular breast cancer screenings. The study reported that those women receiving regular screenings had 22 percent more incidence of breast cancer.
The researchers, as well as another team of doctors who did not take part in the study but who analyzed the data, concluded that the women who didn't have regular breast cancer screenings probably had the same number of occurrences of breast cancer, but that their bodies had somehow corrected the abnormalities on their own.
"Of course, this makes complete sense, because your immune system is set up to recognize and destroy cancers in the right environment," Dr. Northrup says. "The right environment, of course, is enough sleep, a low-glycemic diet, enough vitamin D, and also regular handling of resentments, anger, grief, and loss.
I think what I want women to know is that your breasts are not two potentially pre-malignant lesions sitting on your chest. The problem with our paradigm – whether it's tomosynthesis or mammograms – is that it will find things that were never going to go anywhere. And then you're out there wearing a pink ribbon and running for the cure, thinking that you were going to die of breast cancer when you never will, and never would."
What are Your Breasts Telling You?
Dr. Northrup is a firm believer in the innate wisdom of the body, and you can apply a certain measure of symbolism to various body parts. Your breasts, for example, were designed to feed and nurture your children, as well as for pleasure. According to Dr. Northrup, women who tend to be most at risk for breast cancer are those who have difficulty nurturing themselves and receiving pleasure...
"The first thing you need to understand is you have to learn how to receive – how to receive rest, how to receive pleasure – and that's going to be the primary intervention that I would do. This is the biggest stumbling block for women: we're so afraid of appearing selfish.
Here's what we do to get the nutrients of pleasure and receiving that we all need for optimal brain health – the beta-endorphin or the feel-good chemicals in the brain: We import it through alcohol and sugar, when we can import it directly through self-love, meditation, exercise, and good sex, which you can do with yourself," she says.
Bernie Siegel, a pediatric surgeon from Yale, was co-president of the American Holistic Medical Association with Dr. Northrup in the early '90s.
"Bernie used to say, 'I have come to see that the fundamental problem most patients face is the inability to love themselves,'" she says. "I remember thinking, 'God, Bernie, that seems pretty simple to me.' And you know what? He's right. The older you get, the more you realize this."
So how do you love yourself when you feel unlovable? Dr. Northrup suggests a paradoxical strategy she picked up from Gay Hendricks, who is a pioneer in relationship transformation and body-mind therapies. Simply meditate on, or use the mantra:
"I don't feel lovable, so I'm going to love myself for that."
Another powerful strategy that we use in my practice is a form of energy psychology known as the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), which also uses the affirmation to love and accept yourself unconditionally. This really is a powerful healing affirmation that can have a profound influence. I've worked with tens of thousands of patients, and it can seem like nothing short of magic when unconditional love and self acceptance is integrated into a person's neurology. In many cases, it can resolve physical symptoms quite rapidly.
According to Dr. Northrup, part of this healing is due to the increase in nitric oxide, which is found at high levels in your nasal pharynx. This is one of the reasons why you should breathe through your nose (opposed to mouth-breathing).
"Think about what happens when you do that. You get an increase in nitric oxide in every blood vessel in the body. And remember: a capillary is a micron away from every cell in the body. Nitric oxide is produced by the endothelial lining of every blood vessel in the body. It's increased in all situations of health: self-love, aerobic exercise, antioxidant, vitamins, eating your vegetables. Nitric oxide is the molecule of life force. It also balances all the neurotransmitters instantaneously – serotonin, dopamine, beta endorphin, and all those things for which one in 10 Americans is on an antidepressant."
Dr. Northrup's Top 10 Health Tips for Women
In this interview, Dr. Northrup shares her top 10 tips for women's health:
"Relax the back of your throat. So many women have thyroid problems – it's from chronic tension here; because you're pretty sure your feminine voice isn't going to be heard. It hasn't been heard for 5,000 years. You're not alone. But it's being heard now," she says.
"After 21 days, something will happen to you. You'll see a part of you that looks back at you, and you begin to believe it. "I love you. I really love you."
"Sunlight is not the enemy. It's lack of antioxidants in your diet that is the enemy. Natural light is a lovely source of vitamin D; you can't overdose. But many people – to get their levels of vitamin D into optimal – are going to need 5,000 to 10, 000 international units per day. So, vitamin D is important. You can get your level drawn through MyMedLab.com without a doctor's prescription."
Just remember that if you take high doses of oral vitamin D, you also need to boost your intake of vitamin K2. For more information on this, please see my previous article, What You Need to Know About Vitamin K2, D and Calcium.
Get enough sleep: Proper sleep is essential for optimal health, and it helps metabolize stress hormones better than any other known entity.
Meditate for at least 3-12 minutes each day, to calm and soothe your mind.
Begin your day with a positive affirmation.
Exercise regularly. Ideally, aim for a comprehensive program that includes high intensity exercises and strength training along with core-building exercises and stretching.
Breathe properly. When you breathe in and out fully through your nose, you activate your parasympathetic rest-and-restore nervous system, which expands the lower lobes of your lungs, and therefore engages the vagus nerves.
Practice self love and unconditional acceptance. Dr. Northrup suggests looking at yourself in the mirror at least once a day, and saying: 'I love you. I really love you.'
Optimize your vitamin D levels. Get your vitamin D level checked. Ideally, you'll want your levels within the therapeutic range of 50-70 ng/ml. According to Dr. Northrup:
Cultivate an active social life; enjoy some face-to-face time with likeminded people.
Epsom salt baths (20 minutes, three times per week) are a simple, inexpensive way to get magnesium into your body.
Keep a gratitude journal. Each night, before you go to bed, write down five things that you are grateful for, or five things that brought you pleasure. "Remember: every emotion is associated with a biochemical reality in your body. So, you want to bring in the emotions of generosity, pleasure, receiving, and open-heartedness. The same things that create heart health create breast health."
How to Perform Breast Self-Examinations
Naturally, I couldn't discuss women's breast health with Dr. Northrup without getting her take on breast self-examinations. Surprisingly, research has shown that self-examinations may be overrated, much like mammograms, in terms of saving women's lives.
"There was a huge study done in China that showed that teaching women how to examine their breasts did not decrease their mortality at all," she says. "In fact, all it did was increase the number of biopsies for benign disease. So, there's no data that breast self-exam helps with anything.”
That said, she still encourages and recommends a monthly or weekly "self-love breast massage," but not to specifically look for anything, or with the expectation of finding something wrong. Instead, she suggests just gently and lovingly massaging your breasts and up under your armpit, where the lymph nodes are located, while taking your Epsom salt bath. The best time to do it is just after your period, when you have the least amount of hormonal stimulation.
"Massage this with love. You're not looking for anything," she says. "The average woman will find something. We know that breast self-exam, or just a woman finding something because she knows her breasts, is just as good as all of these other screenings for finding the fast-growing tumors. See, the problem with screening is it finds the slow-growing ones that may regress or wouldn't go anywhere anyway.
So, for a part of your health, you want to start a practice of bringing your breast home to your chest. Get to know them in health lovingly. Don't use your fingertips, by the way. Use your palm. Otherwise, you're going to feel every little gland and freak out. And then if you do find that you have what's called a fibrocystic disease where your breasts get tender, start eating some kelp tablets, because the iodine really helps that in a huge way.”
Taking Control of Your Health is the Best Prevention
The advice offered in this article is that of Dr. Northrup. There are many additional strategies to help prevent cancer, and breast cancer in particular. For a list of my top tips, please see this previous article.
One of the most important lifestyle changes you can make is to adopt a low-glycemic diet and avoid sugar in all its forms, especially fructose. Excess sugar increases insulin which, along with high blood sugar, changes the way estrogen is metabolized in your body. Elevated estrogen levels is a risk factor for breast cancer, so you'll want to avoid estrogen dominance. If you are experiencing excessive menopausal symptoms, you may want to consider bioidentical hormone replacement therapy instead, which uses hormones that are molecularly identical to the ones your body produces and do not wreak havoc on your system. This is a much safer alternative.
I agree with Dr. Northrup that health is ultimately about living well while you're alive, and placing too much effort on detecting cancer can turn you into a patient when you're not actually ill... Cancer screening is not prevention, and while early detection of cancer is desirable, the conventional recommendation to get regular mammograms has shown to be more harmful than helpful.
Remember, 10 times as many women are harmed in some way compared to those whose lives are spared by annual mammograms.
So educate yourself about your options, and embrace your body, your life, and your health; focusing on living healthy, opposed to searching for that elusive "something" that might one day kill you.