Breast cancer prevention and support

By Dr. Sheila Merritt

This article was originally published in May 2002

Dr. Sheila Merritt

“I have breast cancer.” Those four small words have the power to change an entire lifetime. The words sting like a slap in the face. No, this is not some stranger on a faraway shore. This is my friend Cathy, and she’s telling me she has breast cancer. How can this be? She seems so healthy. She has an impeccable diet, doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke. She exercises and meditates. Perfect, right?

Like a terrorist attacking the innocent in the dark of night, breast cancer may strike when least expected. We are left feeling vulnerable, worried about the future, concerned about protecting our daughters, angry, shocked and unsure if we, too, may be assaulted by this silent enemy.

Breast cancer affects women of all races, and seemingly all lifestyles. When trauma occurs, our fears and losses find their way to the surface. Though we may feel vulnerable, through education and action we can take steps to empower and protect ourselves.

Here are some suggestions that can improve your odds against breast cancer:

  1. Find out how toxic your body is. “Heavy” or toxic elements such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead can affect the immune system’s ability to maintain a defense against the reproduction of cancer cells. Since toxic elements collect in such tissues as the breast, thyroid and fat, a chelation challenge is done and then a blood test can measure levels of toxicity in your body. Hair and urinalysis also are used as inexpensive screening tests to determine heavy metal levels.
  2. It is widely believed that “estrogen-like” compounds found throughout the environment play a major role in the development of breast cancer. Our ability to break down and detoxify estrogenic pesticides through liver detoxification, diet, and exercise reduces our exposure to the compounds that contribute to cancer production. This category includes the pesticides found on plants and in the fats of meat products. Minimizing these exposures by eating organic foods is recommended.
  3. Avoid routine use of estrogen during menopause unless your symptoms warrant it. The good news is that there is a valuable blood and urine test that measures levels of estrogen metabolites in the body, namely 2- and 16-alpha hydroxyestrone. Higher levels of 16 hydroxyestrone have been associated with increased risk of breast cancer. This test is a rapid way to evaluate the impact of hormone therapy on estrogen metabolism.

There are a number of beneficial preventative naturopathic approaches to breast cancer. They include:

  • Green Tea (I prefer organic) 3 to 5 cups per day stimulates potent antioxidant activity.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids found in flaxseed oil and fish oils (1000mg daily). Fish that generally contain high amounts of omega-3 oils include salmon, tuna, halibut, mackerel, sardines and herring.
  • Soy isoflavones (150mg daily) have a gentle estrogen effect and is also considered to be “anti-estrogenic” since soy blocks stronger forms of estrogen from binding to estrogen sites in the breast.
  • Freshly ground flax seeds (1 tbs. daily) contain high amounts of lignan.
  • Antioxidant supplementation, including Selenium (200mcg), Coenzyme Q10 (100mg), Alpha lipoic acid (200mg), vitamins A ( 20,000iu) C (1000mg) and E (400iu) per day.
  • Liver assessment and detoxification if necessary. Milk thistle is widely used.
  • Diet modifications include: reduced consumption of red meat, saturated fat, dairy, alcohol and refined sugars.
  • Assess and address the emotional climate in your life. I cannot say enough in this short article about the importance that our emotional and spiritual well-being has on our physical health.

Over the past several months, I have been honored to witness Cathy’s transition into the world of chemotherapy with an openness and trust that is going to give her a long, hopefully healthy life. With a team of healthcare workers who support her, Cathy feels she has been welcomed into a warm, compassionate club. Cathy describes how, after the initial shock and “Why me?” thoughts, a palpable awareness of grace entered into her life. She has become grateful for each day, for friendship and support, for the sweetness in the moment.

Given that one in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, we can all benefit by protecting ourselves nutritionally, becoming more active in environmental decisions, and considering preventive strategies. By taking conscious responsibility for our health and making dietary, supplement, and lifestyle modifications, we can reduce the risk of estrogen-dependent breast cancers.

Dr. Sheila Merritt is a naturopath, homeopath, educator and author and has lectured widely on women’s health issues. A Bastyr University graduate, she enjoys working with patients as a primary care physician in Bellevue. Her first book, “Treating Osteoporosis,” is available at

Also in this issue

Letters to the editor, May 2002

Member Appreciation Day, Organic vs. free-range eggs, Thank you for getting involved