More good news about breast cancer

A low-fat diet may help reduce women's risk of a breast cancer recurrence.

Published December 18, 2006 6:37PM (EST)

Late last week, the wires were abuzz over the fantastic news that breast cancer incidence in the U.S. dropped 7 percent in 2003, the first substantial drop in breast cancer rates in nearly 60 years. The finding was especially good news for women with estrogen-receptor-positive tumors, whose cancer rates fell by 15 percent from 2002 to 2003. Today, though, there seems to be good news for women with estrogen-receptor-negative tumors -- that is, women whose tumors do not respond to the presence of estrogen. A recent five-year study of about 2,400 postmenopausal women who had previously been treated for early-stage breast cancer found that subjects reduced their relative risk of breast cancer recurrence by an average of 24 percent if they stuck to a low-fat diet -- and among women with estrogen-receptor-negative tumors, a low-fat diet reduced their risk of recurrence by 42 percent.

This is especially good news because a lot of breast-cancer-related findings, like the recent bulletin about consuming red meat in moderation, apply to women with estrogen-receptor-positive cancers. Such findings are, of course, very welcome; for one thing, ER-positive tumors account for 70 percent of breast cancer diagnoses. But for ER-negative cases, there seem to be fewer recommendations -- and since ER-negative cancers tend to be more lethal, it's especially great to find a behavioral change that could boost the survival rates of ER-negative cancer sufferers.

Plus, women with ER-positive tumors also lowered their risk of recurrence by going low-fat, though only by 15 percent. (Still, 15 percent! Nothing to sneeze at!) So pursuing a low-fat diet -- defined by this study as a target of about 33 grams of fat per day -- seems like a good plan. And though these findings only apply directly to postmenopausal recovering cancer sufferers, they also have application for women of all ages, since a diet low in fats (especially saturated and trans fats) will also reduce the risk of heart disease -- still the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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