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Women and Cancer

Chapter 14 – Special Groups: Smokers, Drinkers, Women, and Skin Cancer

This chapter discusses the special needs of women, smokers, and drinkers, which are groups that are at higher risks for certain cancers and which therefore require additional protection. Skin cancer is also discussed here because it is one of the deadliest cancers despite the fact that it is one of the easiest to prevent.


Women have particular cancer prevention needs because of the estrogen and progesterone that circulate through their bodies. Certain lifestyle factors increase their risks even further.

One of the factors that most influences cancer in women seems to be low folic acid levels. Prolonged use of estrogens and progestins, as in birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy (HRT), has been associated with breast and cervical cancers, and one of the reasons is believed to be that these hormones reduce folic acid reserves. Breast cancer was relatively uncommon before the widespread use of hormones began, yet it has continually increased since then to the point where the risk is one in eight.

Low folic acid levels also lead to HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) and cervical neoplasms. Some women have a genetic mutation that limits folate metabolism, a mutation that has been associated with cervical lesions. However, unless you have your genes tested, there is no way of knowing if you are one of the unlucky ones.

The earlier a woman gets her first period and the later she enters menopause, the greater her chance is of developing breast cancer. The reason for this is that she will have undergone more menstrual cycles and hence had more estrogen circulating through her body for a longer period of time. Also, the earlier a woman bears her first child, the lower her risk is of developing breast cancer. Those that breast feed also have lower risk. If you are at higher risk, you should definitely follow the recommendations below.

Alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer because it interferes with folic acid metabolism. Alcohol intake also raises estrogen levels. Smoking also reduces folic acid levels. If you drink and smoke, you are at high risk. If you drink, smoke and are on the pill, you really need to take protective measures.

For all these reasons, all women of child-baring age or higher should take folic acid supplements. Oral contraceptives also lower blood levels of beta-carotene and vitamin B6. Hence, women on the pill should take supplements for these two substances and/or follow a diet that includes both of them.

The Western diet, which often leads to excessive body fat, has been linked to breast cancer. Breast cancer rates in Japan have been increasing over the last few decades as their fat and refined carbohydrate intake has increased. They still consume less fat and bad carbs than Americans and consequently have lower breast cancer rates. It is not known with certainty whether it is the excess body fat, the poor diet that leads to excess body fat, or the fact that excess body fat increases estrogen levels, but the link is clear: excess body fat increases breast cancer risk. However, a recent study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York found that postmenoposal women whose diets are high on the glycemic index scale have an 87 percent greater breast cancer risk than those with low glycemic index diets. So refined carbs should definitely be avoided by women who want to reduce their breast cancer risk.

Breast cells are very sensitive to radiation, so women should try to get as few X- rays as possible. Mammograms also increase radiation exposure for women, so women must make the personal decision of whether the benefits of potentially detecting breast cancer using a mammogram outweigh the slightly increased risk of breast cancer that the mammogram could create.

There is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids help prevent breast cancer. Fiber helps by absorbing estrogen in the colon and excreting it with the feces. Soy helps by blocking estrogen receptor sites in breast cells. Lignans, which are part of the fiber in plants, also bind to estrogen receptors, providing a second protective effect of fiber.

Recommendations for women

Besides following most of the recommendations that apply to everyone, women should ensure that they follow these recommendations because of their added vulnerabilities.

  1. Low alcohol diet
  2. Low fat and simple carbohydrate diet.
  3. Regular exercise, preferably aerobic, with the aim of maintaining a lean body
  4. High soy product consumption
  5. High fiber consumption
  6. High legume consumption, especially lentils and beans
  7. N-acetylcysteine (NAC) supplementation
  8. High vitamin C consumption and supplementation
  9. High omega-3 fatty acid consumption
  10. Folic acid supplementation