According to a new study, a molecule that originates from cholesterol can stimulate the growth of breast cancer. The study raises hope that a healthy lifestyle and the use of statins – cholesterol-lowering drugs – could be effective in preventing breast cancer.
Over 232,000 new cases of breast cancer and nearly 40,000 deaths in women are estimated to occur this year in the U.S. according to the National Cancer Institute. Breast cancer originates from breast tissue most commonly found in milk ducts.
Many studies in the past have shown a link between obesity and breast cancer. In people who are overweight, fat can expel hormones, including estrogen, to propagate cancer. Duke University scientists found that cholesterol was behaving similarly to estrogen.
The body breaks cholesterol down into a molecule called 27HC. This molecule causes the same side-effects as estrogen in certain tissues.
In mice, experiments revealed that a fatty diet increased the level of the harmful molecule, 27HC, in blood. Consequently, tumors grew 30 percent bigger than tumors observed in mice with a non-fatty diet. The likelihood for tumors to spread also went up. In addition, human breast cancer tissue grew notably faster with the help of 27HC in lab experiments.
The research is significant because it finally found the elusive link between obesity, cholesterol, and breast cancer risk. That is, the molecule derived from cholesterol copies the actions of estrogen in helping breast cancer grow.
The research raises hope that lowering cholesterol will help in warding off breast cancer. Other studies have hinted at a link between statins and lower risk of breast cancer. Millions are already using the cholesterol-lowering drug to reduce heart disease risk.
However, it is too soon to recommend statins in the fight against breast cancer. Statins can also come with side effects. Muscle pain is the most common complaint. The drug can cause soreness, tiredness, and weakness in muscles. The pain can be just mildly uncomfortable or it can be strong enough to make walking or climbing stairs difficult.
Nonetheless, a healthy diet and lifestyle can go a long way in reducing cholesterol in the blood. Extra body weight – even a few extra pounds -can raise cholesterol in an unhealthy way. Losing just 5 to 10 percent of body mass can significantly bring down cholesterol levels.
Eating healthier foods and keeping cholesterol-rich foods to a minimum helps. Meats, egg yolks, and whole milk products tend to be higher in cholesterol. Adding whole grain breads to the diet is helpful. Regular exercise is also important in maintaing healthy cholesterol levels. “As things stand, until we know more about the effects of statins on cancer risk, the best ways to cut the risk of developing breast cancer are to stay a healthy weight, cut down on alcohol and keep active,” maintains Dr. Emma Smith from Cancer Research, UK.
Though the research has finally shown the link between cholesterol and breast cancer, it is still at the laboratory level. The study does make a strong case, however, for keeping cholesterol level low for the prevention of breast cancer as well as heart disease.
By Fatema Biviji