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Menopause and Cancer Risk

Menopause and Cancer Risk

While women are generally aware of the symptoms that accompany the transition into menopause, they are often less knowledgeable of the increased risk of chronic disease, in particular, certain types of hormonal cancers.

Let me be clear, menopause does not cause cancer; however, hormonal changes combined with poor nutrition and lifestyle behaviors may increase the risk of this disease. It is for this reason that educating women on wellness practices as they transition into their wise women years is fundamental.

The defining moment of menopause is when a woman stops cycling for one full year. It occurs as the ovaries stop releasing eggs for fertilization in response to the extreme decline in circulating estrogen, the dominant female hormone. While there are many hormones that begin their decline in the years preceding menopause, it is the decline of estrogen, the “primary” female hormone, that increase women’s most common menopausal symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms include hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, and brain fog.

But what about the increase in cancer risk? The risk of cancer for women is indirectly linked to the timing of menopause. The first major factor is simply age. Whether for men or women, older age is the primary risk factor for many different types of cancer. According to a 2014 article by White et al., it is estimated that by 2030, 70% of all cancers will occur among adults aged 65 years and older. This statistic is not meant to invoke fear, instead, it should serve as a motivator to make important changes to lifestyle behaviors in order to not become a statistic.

Our health is very much in our control, and there are many choices to make that can help women manage their risk of hormonal cancers. Women are also offered the option for hormonal replacement therapy, and this, too, comes with its own pros and cons, too lengthy to go into a discussion here.  

It is important to consider several factors for optimizing post-menopausal women’s health including nutrition, exercise and cleaning up their environment. Post-menopausal women, especially those with a family history of estrogen positive cancers, will want to avoid exposure to exogenous hormones and ensure the proper detoxification of their endogenous ones.  

Nutrition is always a great starting point when one is looking to optimize health. We need to move away from the standard American diet toward one of nutritious whole food. It is encouraged that women rely on organic and hormone free animal products including all meats and eggs, as well as wild caught fish and seafood. Furthermore, the rich amino acid profiles of these foods are crucial to optimizing the body’s detoxification. For women who are particularly concerned about estrogenic cancers, it is advisable to avoid dairy, or, at minimum, keep some organic dairy as a condiment to main meals.

Other nutritional recommendations include increasing the intake of fiber rich foods. Fiber plays an important role in the binding and excretion of hormones from the body. The current recommendation for women is 25g of daily fiber to ensure proper detoxification and daily bowel movements.  

Cruciferous vegetables are another important food to help ensure that our bodies, and more specifically, our liver, is properly ridding itself of unwanted estrogen. The daily intake of vegetables such as broccoli and broccoli sprouts, cauliflower, kale and brussel sprouts, to name but a few, is an excellent way to help the liver. This comes from the glucosinolates in these foods which are involved in the Phase II detoxification pathway. Research shows that these compounds may be beneficial in the protection from cancers, specifically breast cancer (Fowke et al., 2003). Ensuring our body’s detoxification system is working optimally through food is an important foundational step.  

The next important consideration is movement and sweating. Women post menopause should continue to engage in physical exercise to help reduce risks of hormonal cancers (Eliassen et al., 2010). Getting outside for daily brisk walks and strength training in the gym to build and preserve muscle and bone mass are important ways to optimize your body for health. Exercise is also important in that it induces sweating. Sweating is another way the body excretes unwanted toxins. Engaging in a strenuous workout, sitting in a hot bath, or spending time in a sauna are all excellent ways to help the body detox unwanted estrogens and other toxins.

Finally, one of the last important areas to consider when optimizing your health against hormonal cancer is cleaning up your environment. This is a critical and often unknown step in helping relieve the body’s estrogen burden. When considering environmental estrogens, we want to look at personal care products and home cleaning products to ensure they are up to the standards of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a great resource that offers guidelines on the cleanest products on the market. We also want to look at the items used in the kitchen and remove any Teflon coated or plastic based products that leach hormone disrupting chemicals into our food. Other things women might want to avoid or consider finding alternatives to is dry cleaning. The chemicals used in this industry are highly toxic to our systems and do no favors to our hormonal health.  

The menopausal years are years to be celebrated in a woman’s life. However, it is important to honor these years by making the best choices for one’s health. Knowing that a woman’s risk for cancer increases with age and taking action by making significant dietary and lifestyle changes are both critical and empowering to all women. It is time to take health into our own hands!

KEY TIPS TO KEEP IN MIND

  • Menopause is linked to increased cancer risk because of age
  • Women post menopause can offset hormonal cancer risks through nutrition and lifestyle changes
  • Consider only pasture raised, grass fed, hormone free and wild caught animal protein
  • Keep organic hormone free dairy as a condiment
  • Aim for a minimum of 25g of fiber rich food
  • Ensure daily bowel movement
  • Increase intake of cruciferous vegetables
  • Sweat on a regular basis
  • Clean out your personal and household cleaning products

RESEARCH

Eliassen, A. H., Hankinson, S. E., Rosner, B., Holmes, M. D., & Willett, W. C. (2010). Physical activity and risk of breast cancer among postmenopausal women. Archives of Internal Medicine, 170(19), 1758-1764.

Fowke, J.H., Chung, F.L., Jin, F., Qi, D., Cai, Q., Conaway, C., Cheng, J.R., Shu, X.O., Gao, Y.T. and Zheng, W.,  (2003). Urinary isothiocyanate levels, brassica, and human breast cancer. Cancer Research, 63(14), 3980-3986.

White, M. C., Holman, D. M., Boehm, J. E., Peipins, L. A., Grossman, M., & Henley, S. J. (2014). Age and cancer risk: a potentially modifiable relationship. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 46(3), S7-S15  

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