Five foods to beat breast cancer

Last week, at the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I reported on studies showing that having more children is the No. 1 thing women can do to lower their breast cancer risk. But there are still plenty of other things you can do to reduce your breast cancer risk–and to improve your survival rate if you do get breast cancer–even if your child-bearing years are behind you.

In fact, time and again, research shows women have a much lower risk of developing breast cancer (as well as most other cancers) if they eat more of five key foods.

  1. Broccoli

We have known about the ability of broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables to reduce cancer risk, especially breast cancer risk, for nearly 100 years. In fact, this knowledge first came to light during the British Empire Cancer Campaign studies in the 1920s.

But when the National Cancer Institute (NCI) finally started studying diet and cancer 60 years later, in the 1980s, they first chose to focus on carotenoids–specifically beta-carotene–as the “magic bullet” for cancer without any real evidence.  And we all know how that turned out.

I started in another direction and analyzed the nutrient composition of broccoli with the USDA Human Nutrition Research Lab to first find out what nutrients are actually in cancer-preventive foods. Since I previously worked in forensic pathology as a Medical Examiner, I knew I should first get the evidence before jumping to conclusions! Sure enough, we found that broccoli is rich in many vitamins and phytonutrients, including carotenoids–but just not beta-carotene.

But the NCI persisted in barking up the wrong tree about beta-carotene, even trying to suppress publication of my research. As soon as I left the NCI to become an associate medical director at Walter Reed, I published the research and, in fact, received the “Young Investigator” Award at Walter Reed for doing it.

However, the NCI continued to ignore the USDA evidence and many other similar studies that followed. Arguably, they set back diet and cancer prevention research by dozens of years and millions of dollars.

Today, most experts (even at NCI) understand broccoli is a potent anti-cancer agent. But it’s not enough to know broccoli protects you against cancer. They want to know how and why it works.

Most current research focuses on two classes of broccoli’s biologically active components–indoles and sulforaphanes–which promote healthy cell growth and have “anti-cancer” activities.

Well, while these scientists continue to spend time and money hashing out exactly why and how eating broccoli works…you can take the direct route…and just eat more of it.

I recommend eating broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables several times a week. They’re delicious steamed with any fish or meat dish. You can also sauté broccoli with garlic and olive oil for a delicious stand-alone dish. It’s also delicious served cold after cooking dressed with some olive oil and/or vinegar.

  1. Garlic

Garlic contains numerous compounds that appear to prevent cancer by slowing the formation and growth of tumors, and interfering with cancer cells. In Eastern and Southern Europe–and in many parts of Asia and South America–people regularly incorporate garlic into their traditional cuisine. In European folk medicine, it is used as a remedy for treating early onset colds and flus. Lab studies show many benefits for the blood, heart and immune system as well.

Of course, you can add garlic for flavor in many dishes. You can insert garlic cloves into any meat before roasting. You can also add it raw in smaller amounts to salads. Try this: Cut a garlic clove and rub it over the lid of the cooking pan, or run it around the inside of a salad bowl.

I see a lot of garlic salt on grocery store shelves. And manufacturers sell a lot of garlic supplements. But it’s always better to stick with the fresh garlic. And it’s easy to do.

Fresh garlic naturally retains its potency and flavor. In fact, until you “peel” or open it, the garlic clove will stay potent for months at a time. Always store whole cloves in open air–such as in a basket or ventilated clay pot–at room temperature away from direct sunlight.

  1. Olive oil

Olive oil also gets a lot of attention for its anti-cancer activity. Scientists speculate that olive oil’s “antioxidant” properties also contribute to its other benefits, such as reducing cardiovascular diseases and preventing heart attacks and strokes. Of course, it helps balance blood lipids (blood fats) as well, which could possibly help account for heart and other benefits.

I recommend using olive oil liberally in cooking and in salads. Always store it in a dark place at room temperature. Keep just enough on hand at a time to last about three months, so it will always stay fresh.

  1. Salmon

Salmon comes up on my list because it promotes healthy cell growth and helps prevent breast cancer. Of course, it also has many other health benefits. It contains the all-important omega-3 fatty acids, which play a critical role in supporting the brain, heart and immune system. Plus, like other healthy fish and meat, it has high levels of bioavailable B vitamins and vitamin D, which are very difficult to get from even the healthiest vegetables.

Always make sure to buy wild-caught salmon. Farm-raised salmon can have as little as one-tenth of the key nutrients. Plus, they often contain high levels of heavy metals such as mercury and other toxins.

Unfortunately, virtually all Atlantic salmon today are farm-raised, whether from Scotland or Nova Scotia. So, ignore the crazy color-coding at places like Whole Foods and just make sure your salmon comes from the Pacific.

  1. Turmeric (Curcumin)

With each passing year, we learn more and more about the role this ancient spice turmeric (curcumin) can play in preventing and treating breast cancer. One study from Southeast Asia shows women who eat more turmeric have a lower risk of metastatic breast cancer.

But remember–as I mentioned earlier with broccoli–scientists today don’t just accept that something works. They want to know how and why it works. Fortunately, we are making good progress in that area of research on turmeric.

In fact, according to a comprehensive report from 2013 in the Journal of Breast Cancer, we now know turmeric incites cell death and inhibits tumor cell growth. It also inhibits the movement of breast cancer cells along known pathways in the body. Of course turmeric is also known for its potent anti-inflammatory activity. (Indeed, it’s also a key component what I call the “ABCs of Joint Health.”)

Before I go, I should probably mention three foods many so-called experts tout as cancer-busters. But really–you may be better off avoiding them…

First, there’s green tea. Experts always seem to put it on the list for anti-cancer benefits. And many lab studies do show epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) in tea has anti-cancer activities. But I wonder whether these experts have done the calculations to translate the lab research to real everyday people and drinking habits.

As I reported in my Insiders’ Cures newsletter (April 2014), you would have to drink 16 cups per day of green tea to get active doses of EGCG. Plus, even if you could drink that much every day, at that point you get exposed to acids and oxalates that can cause GI problems and kidney stones. Not to mention the toxins in the paper and plastics used for “tea bags” and filters. Also, recent studies show we can attribute Asian women’s increased longevity and health to other dietary factors besides green tea, such as hot chili peppers.

Cow’s milk is the second anti-cancer dud. Some experts tell you milk protects women from breast cancer, perhaps because it’s relatively high in vitamin D. But remember, manufacturers artificially add that vitamin D to cow’s milk. Plus, research links cow’s milk consumption during infancy and childhood to greater long-term risks of breast and other cancers. I uncovered this startling fact doing my Ph.D. dissertation research.

So skip the milk. But keep the vitamin D.

As I explained yesterday, in a recent pioneering study, researchers reduced the number of “mother” breast cancer stem cells by simply exposing them to a vitamin D compound.

So make sure to spend 15 minutes in the sun every day without sunscreen between April and October to boost your vitamin D stores. Also–supplement daily with 10,000 IU of vitamin D all year long.

And finally, some experts still make woefully misguided claims about the benefits of soy. But don’t buy into it. The processed soy found in products like soy milk and veggie burgers contains phytoestrogens, which can disrupt hormonal balance in both women and men. Also, virtually all soybeans grown in the U.S. today are genetically modified (GM), which is a disaster for ecology and the environment.

So now you know which foods to keep on the menu. And which foods to leave off.



  1. “The Effect of Curcumin on Breast Cancer Cells,” J Breast Cancer. 2013 Jun; 16(2): 133–137