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It’s that time of year again. You head off to your doctor’s office for a physical that may include a mammogram or other form of breast exam. Chances are this is an uncomfortable, painful, or even embarrassing experience and definitely not one you look forward to. After all, not only are your breasts a physically sensitive part of your body, but they have huge symbolic importance, associated with both physical pleasure and a primal feeling of being loved, nurtured and cared for. You may also fear what the exam may uncover.
Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women who have a one in eight chance of developing this disease in their lifetime. And the American Cancer Association estimates that 42,170 women will die from it in 2020, making it second only to lung cancer for most annual, female cancer deaths.
The good news is that breast cancer can be detected early and there are things you can do to lower your risk for getting it.
To raise awareness about early detection, the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries (now part of the drug company AstraZeneca) started National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1985. Today, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which runs from October 1–31, is an international event.
During this time, you will see reminders like pink lapel ribbons, buildings lit up with pink lights at night, and fundraisers like walks and runs along with corporate acknowledgements that include the NFL. All of this is to remind us and make us aware of the benefits of finding and detecting breast cancer early.
The 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States are evidence of the importance of early detection and treatment of this disease. If you are not one of them, you almost certainly know women who are alive and well today because they took action early.
However, while early detection is key, prevention is even better. Thanks to our growing understanding of the causes of breast cancer, there is potential for many women to be spared the agony of this scary diagnosis and the treatments that follow.
And one of the best alternative approaches to enjoying excellent breast health and preventing cancer is Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old health system from India that has a growing following in the West as experience and scientific studies confirm its power.
Breast Cancer Prevention
In a 2020, peer-reviewed article entitled Herbal Remedies for Breast Cancer Prevention and Treatment, the authors state that breast cancer is “a disease largely triggered by environmental and lifestyle factors [rather] than genetic, which is believed to be responsible for only 10–15 percent of all breast cancer cases.”
In other words, while you await your regular checkups, there are many steps you can take to improve your chances of leaving your doctor’s office with a smile on your face.
A Google search uncovers a host of information about breast health and cancer prevention. You can read about the importance of exercise, diet (this alone could keep you reading for weeks), supplements, essential oils, and lifestyle interventions like meditation, yoga or breathwork. The question is, where do you start? Do you adopt a bit of each suggestion, or focus on just one or two? How do you know? And who can you consult for advice?
It’s easy to get caught up in media hype about the latest superfoods, supplements, and medications. But it is often difficult to know what the latest research means for you. Worse yet is when you learn about side effects or exceptions after the fact.
At one time, women were routinely prescribed hormone treatments at menopause to help control symptoms like hot flashes and prevent chronic conditions like osteoporosis or heart disease. But taking these hormones can increase the risk of breast cancer. So can soy supplements often recommended for menopausal women who want an alternative to medication.
Coffee consumption is another example. If you love your daily hit of caffeine, the good news is that most current studies find it is associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer. However, a 2018 study found that postmenopausal women who had previously taken hormone treatments were an exception. Women from that group who drank more than four cups of coffee a day had a 22 percent greater risk for breast cancer than those who drank less than seven cups of coffee a week.
This poses quite a dilemma for women who take hormone replacement treatments and are then forced to choose between breast cancer risk and their caffeine habit once they get past menopause.
Studies like this are by definition focused on one symptom or outcome. And while this is essential for good research, it can also miss the wisdom available from a holistic view that recognizes other types of underlying causes for increased risk in these women. Were they stressed? Anxious? Depressed? How about their diets and their relationships? Were they happy? Unhappy?
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a holistic approach to breast care? One that considers the impact of your physical and mental health along with your emotional and spiritual well being? One that comes up with a plan that is uniquely yours rather than a one-size-fits-all solution?
Fortunately, Ayurveda is just such a system. Not only is it holistic, but its long track record and excellent results have been validated by hundreds of today’s studies. And you can be assured that your Ayurvedic wellness plan is unique to you.
Is Ayurveda Good for Health?
Ayurveda views any kind of health concern from a breast lump to a sore back, a cough, depression, or a cancer diagnosis as a signal your body is out of balance. (While most lumps and other changes in your breasts are not cancerous, if you do notice a change, always contact your physician for appropriate testing and advice on treatment.)
When you consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner, they will ask about any physical symptoms you may have. Everything from an itchy rash to being dehydrated, fatigued, congested, in pain, or suffering from insomnia are indications of the state of your balance even though they may not seem directly related to your concerns about breast health.
They will also ask about mental or emotional issues related to overwork or financial stress. Spiritual imbalance, due to working a job you hate or letting yourself get overwhelmed because you have difficulty saying “no,” is another area they will explore with you.
Once they have an understanding of why you are out of balance, they will work with you to develop a pathway to better breast health. And that will be a holistic program, unique to you, that will help bring you back into the balance and harmony that supports good health.
Doshas Tell the Story
In Ayurveda, balance and imbalance are expressed in terms of your dominant body type or dosha (vata, pitta or kapha), each of which is characterized by two of the five elements: vata—air and ether, Pita—water and fire, and Kapha—water and earth.
While you are born with a dominant dosha, imbalance can occur in any of the three at any time. And your symptoms are clues as to which dosha is most impacted.
For example, vata’s air and ether elements are associated with movement in the body and symptoms such as worry, anxiety, insomnia, constipation, joint pain, digestive upsets and dry or thinning skin and hair.
Too much of pitta’s fire and water elements may result in anger, impatience, hemorrhoids, hot flashes and red, itchy skin eruptions. And an excess of kapha’s water and earth elements may cause sluggishness and symptoms like sleeping through the alarm, cold and sinus congestion, lack of alertness, allergies and weight gain.
When it comes to breast health, vata and kapha imbalances are often the culprits, although signs of infection, inflammation or breast pain can indicate a pitta imbalance as well.
Vata women typically have less fatty tissue and correspondingly smaller breasts than others. They may also be prone to blockages, lumps, and dehydration of breast tissue when too much dryness from air and ether interrupts the flow of vital fluids like blood and lymph through their breasts. During these times their breasts may also shrink.
Larger breasts due to more fatty tissue are common in kaphas and, according to studies, could be a risk factor for cancer.
Symptoms of kapha imbalance include monthly swelling or actual increases in breast size. Breast lumps, due to the kapha tendency towards sluggishness, and thick discharge may be other symptoms.
The type of imbalance you experience will determine the steps you need to take to return you to good health. And once again, Ayurveda turns to the doshas.
A key principle in Ayurveda is that like increases like, which means if you want to balance the cold and dry of vata, avoid cold and dry food, environments and situations.
Instead choose warm, comforting and grounding foods such as soups and stews full of warming spices like cinnamon or cardamom, and avoid cold and dry foods like ice cream, crackers or popcorn. Dress warmly when you go out in cold weather, and spend time in front of your fireplace sipping warm beverages when indoors. Calming activities like yoga and meditation will help tame vata anxiety as will sticking to a regular schedule.
Kapha imbalanced folks need stimulation to keep circulation moving and prevent stagnation in their bodies and thoughts. Yoga or some other form of regular exercise is critical for kaphas as is choosing foods that are astringent, pungent (spicy), and bitter, but not sweet.
Pittas need to avoid working too many long hours and overheating when exercising or working outdoors. Sipping cool beverages will help offset excess fire as will avoiding artificial stimulants. Their best food choices are sweet, bitter and astringent, the latter to help sop up excess water element. Taking regular breaks while working, and a long break at the end of the day, will help pittas cool down so they can relax.
How can I improve my breast health?
The best solution to improved breast health is to get to know yourself.
Learn what it feels like when you are in balance and feeling really good And what it’s like to feel “off” or out of balance. Notice the changes that occur from month to month or even day to day during times of stress.
If, for example, you find you are frequently thirsty or your skin is drier than usual or your breasts have a dehydrated look your vata may be out of balance and you can begin to make corrective shifts in your diet or your lifestyle to bring yourself back to health.
And remember, assistance is available when you need it. You can contact the experts at Shankara Ayurveda Wellness for an online Ayurvedic Lifestyle Consultation that will help you identify your imbalances and set your unique health and wellness goals.
For more insight on breast health and especially on breast self-care, watch for Part 2 of this post…coming soon.