Wall Street Journal health journalist Tara Parker-Pope reports preventing breast cancer is not just a grown-up issue:
A growing body of evidence shows that a woman's risk for breast cancer may be determined far earlier in life. Cellular changes that can lead to cancer likely begin in childhood when breast tissue is just beginning to develop.
So while strategies like diet, exercise and -- for high-risk women -- prevention drugs like Tamoxifen may help stave off breast cancer in midlife, scientists are also beginning to look at prevention efforts for young girls. What's increasingly clear is that the health decisions parents make for their daughter in preschool, adolescence and the late teen years have the potential to dramatically alter her risk for breast cancer as she becomes a woman.
Parker-Pope explains childhood exercise is an import factor in cancer prevention:
Encourage exercise at a young age. Exercise early in life appears to lower a girl's hormone levels, and potentially delay the onset of her first period. The average age of first period today is about 12, but some girls start periods as early as nine or 10. Girls who don't get their periods until the age of 13 or 14 have a lower lifetime risk for breast cancer.
Exercise before puberty lowers body fat and also damps down hormone production by the pituitary gland, keeping hormone levels low longer and thereby delaying menstruation. "It's important to start things young," says Anne McTiernan, director of the Prevention Center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle and author of the book "Breast Fitness." Dr. McTiernan suggests an hour of daily exercise for girls, including recess and gym class.
Parker-Pope goes on to point out the importence of a healthy diet in young girls' lives:
Limit Junk Food. Some research suggests that diet early in life and into adolescence can influence breast-cancer risk. In February, a Harvard study suggested a child's preschool diet could affect breast-cancer risk. Women who frequently ate french fries in preschool had a 27% higher risk for breast cancer as adults.
Modest reductions in fat intake during puberty can lower levels of hormones in a girl's body. Girls who eat diets higher in fiber appear to get their first period later. Some evidence suggests that increasing soy in the teen diet can also lower long-term breast cancer risk. Even though the data on adolescent diet and breast-cancer risk are mixed, it makes sense to encourage girls to eat fruits and vegetables and avoid unhealthy fats.
In The Wall Street Journal, the connection between healthy practices at a young age, and cancer later in life is news, and they should be saluted for being among the first major media outlets to really make the connection. Dr. Fuhrman looked at a lot of the same research in researching his book Disease Proof Your Child last year. The connection between childhood diet and exercise, early menstruation, and cancer is a major theme of his book, which has an entire chapter on the causes of cancer and other illnesses.
In this excerpt, Dr. Fuhrman explains the trademarks of the standard American Diet (SAD) contribute to earlier puberty in girls, which heightens lifetime risk of breast cancer:
The average age of onset of menstruation in the nineteenth century was seventeen, whereas in the last fifty years in Western industrialized countries, such as the United States, the average age of onset of menstruation is twelve. The over-nutrition and heightened exposure to animal products, oil, and saturated fats2 earlier in life induces a rapid earlier growth and an earlier puberty. Earlier age of puberty increases one's lifetime exposure to estrogens and is associated with a higher incidence of breast cancer years later.
Cohort studies, which follow two groups of children over time, have shown that the higher consumption of produce and protein-rich plant foods such as beans and nuts is associated with a later menarche, and the higher consumption of protein-rich animal foods—-meats and diary—-is associated with an earlier menarche and increased occurrence of adult breast cancer.3
Hopefully this is just the beginning of word starting to spread to parents that what they feed their young children can have a big effect on lifelong health.
1. Pike MC, Henderson BE, Casagrande JT. IN: Pike MC, Siiteri PK, Welsh CN, eds. Hormones and cancer. New York, Banbury Reports, Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory 3, 1981.
2. Hilakivi-Clarke E, Cho S, deAssis S, et al. Maternal and prepubertal diet, mammary development and breast cancer risk J Nutr 2001; 131:154S-157S.
3. UK Department of Health, Working Group on Diet and Cancer of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy. Nutritional aspects of development of cancer. London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1998.