Summer time is full of hotdogs, hamburgers and steaks, especially at backyard barbeques. But how much red meat is too much? A new study shows that consuming too much red meat could be linked to breast cancer.

The BBC reports on the link between red meat and breast cancer.

Studies show that eating a great deal of red meat early in life is a possible contributing cause of breast cancer later on.

The BBC explains how the study was conducted...

“The new data comes from a US study tracking the health of 89,000 women aged 24 to 43. A team, led by Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, analyzed the diets of almost 3,000 women who developed breast cancer.”

The study mostly consisted of educated Caucasian women; therefore it is unclear whether it is applicable to women of other races.

Consuming too much red meat is also linked to bowel cancer. The Department of Health in Britain has advised Britons to significantly cut down on their meat consumption in order to avoid bowel cancer. For example, they give a guideline stating that if you eat more than ninety grams of cooked meat a day then that is way too much. They suggest that people not consume more than seventy grams at the most.

What can be done to reduce this risk? According to these findings, cut down on the meat and replace it with other forms of protein. This includes: beans, peas, lentils, poultry, nuts and fish.

Fox offers statistics to explain the findings,

“Using a statistical model, scientists estimated that in women who ate the most amount of red meat, there were an extra 6.8 cases of breast cancer for every 1,000 women over 20 years of follow-up. In developed countries, women have about a 12.5 percent chance of developing breast cancer. Scientists suspect proteins in red meat speed up cell division and tumor growth; chemicals such as nitrates in processed meats are already classified as probable carcinogens.”

Researchers at Oxford University were not convinced by the study’s results. One epidemiologist from Oxford told the BBC,

The US study found ‘only a weak link’ between eating red meat and breast cancer, which was not strong enough to change the existing evidence that has found no definite link between the two. Women can reduce their risk of breast cancer by maintaining a healthy weight, drinking less alcohol and being physically active, and it's not a bad idea to swap some red meat - which is linked to bowel cancer - for white meat, beans or fish.”

But not all British experts were adverse to the study. One researcher from British Breast Cancer Care organization told the BBC,

“This study is interesting because it looks at young women's eating habits and supports the growing body of evidence of the importance of eating a well balanced diet. Doing exercise and keeping a healthy body weight can also help reduce your risk of breast cancer. However it is important to remember that it can't prevent it completely. Being female, increasing age and having a significant family history are the three main risk factors for developing breast cancer.”

Fox news supports the findings of the study.

Red meat was originally linked to pancreas and colon cancer but many sources such as Fox and the BBC are reporting on the new study and relating it to breast cancer because of the high number of subjects in the study who ate red meat and acquired breast cancer. But then again, the study did not conclusively show that vegetarians have a lower risk. This might be because vegetarians eat a diet high in soy, which raises estrogen levels, which then sometimes causes breast cancer.

Mrs. Gaudet, a director of epidemiology at the American Cancer Society said the study was quite important and should be taken seriously. Gaudet told Fox,

“It is plausible that red meat could somehow be connected to breast cancer and that women's eating habits in their 20s might be particularly significant. Breasts are still developing and are more susceptible to carcinogens before women have their first full-term pregnancy. The American Cancer Society recommends people eat a ‘plant-based’ diet. It's important to have a healthy lifestyle throughout your life and not just as you get older and more worried about cancer. People should perhaps consider ordering a salad or a vegetarian option sometime.”

What is the best way to detect breast cancer?

In today’s highly technological world many people disagree about the best way to test for breast cancer for many reasons such as false positives. CBS reports on mammograms stating that they reduce mortality rates by thirty percent and the limited downside of false positives. CBS bases its report on findings provided by the latest large study that tested whether the dangers of mammograms outweigh the benefits.

How was this study conducted?

“Researchers tracked women aged 50 to 79 between 1986 and 2009, just as a national screening program was getting underway. Scientists used a model to estimate breast cancer death rates in women invited to get a mammogram as part of the government-funded program and in those who weren't included yet. They said about 76 percent of women offered a mammogram actually got it. The researchers estimated that approximately one breast cancer death could be prevented for every 368 women screened with mammography, and that the routine test could reduce breast cancer deaths by about 28 percent,” according to CBS.  

The problem with mammograms is that it also captures tumors that are not malignant and they cause many false-positives that subject women to much emotional turmoil. One of the study’s lead authors told CBS,

“Improved treatments for breast cancer have also lowered death rates in developed countries, making mammograms less important since even cancers caught later are sometimes still treatable. The benefits of getting a mammogram justified ongoing national screening programs but that women should be given more information about the potential harms, like having unnecessary treatment including surgery and chemotherapy.”

So what is the downside of getting a mammogram? Well the main downside is false positives.

“A British review in 2012 concluded that for every life mammograms save, about three other women are unnecessarily treated for a cancer that would never have threatened their lives. In February, a rigorous Canadian paper covering older methods of screening that followed women for more than two decades suggested mammograms don't lower the risk of dying from breast cancer,” according to CBS.

The New York Times reports on another problem with mammograms – they are hard to read if you have dense breasts. How do dense breasts make it hard to read mammograms?

The Times explains,

“Dense tissue shows up white on the scans. So do tumors. No wonder mammograms miss half of all breast cancers in women with dense tissue. About 40 percent of women who have mammograms have dense breast tissue, which means they have more connective and fibrous tissue than usual. Until recently, that information was rarely relayed to women, though it was routinely noted in the radiologist’s medical report to the doctor (as ‘dense parenchyma’ that ‘lowers the sensitivity of mammography’).” One doctor who specializes in this area told The Times, “It’s like looking through a window with snow on it, searching for a drop of milk.”

Is there anything that women with dense breasts can do to help make their results more accurate? Unfortunately there is no method of helpful protocol yet. Now at least doctors are required by law to let women know if they have dense breasts through a letter after they have received a mammogram. “The letters mandated by New York law suggest women ‘use this information to talk to your doctor about your own risks for breast cancer’ and ask their doctor ‘if more screening tests might be useful’. The Connecticut law goes further; women with dense breasts are told to consider an ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI).”

Dr. Keating from Harvard’s School of Public Health told CBS her research showed that mammograms only reduce breast cancer mortality rates by nineteen percent. She broke down the numbers saying,

“For women in their 40s, regular screening with mammography only lowered breast cancer-related deaths by around 15 percent. Post-menopausal women were found to benefit the most from annual mammography; the screening test lowered death rates of women in their 60s by 32 percent.” She described the benefits of getting a mammogram as ‘relatively modest’.

What do American health officials suggest that you do? Despite the drawbacks, they want you to get a mammogram regularly, especially after you reach a certain age. CBS reports, “The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women begin biannual mammograms at 50, while the American Cancer Society recommends yearly."

Gerry Oginski
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