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Re-Examining Breast Health

Are you doing everything you can to prevent breast cancer? Yoga can reduce your risk by stimulating lymph flow, strengthening the endocrine and immune systems, and improving your attitude toward your body.

By Joanna Colwell

Know Your Risk Factors
Gender is the single biggest risk factor: Women account for more than 99 percent of breast cancers. A documented family history of breast cancer is also important: If your mother and sister both have had breast cancer, you're four to six times more likely than average to develop it yourself.

Alcohol consumption is risky too. As little as one drink per day increases your risk by 40 percent, and higher consumption brings more risk. High exposure to radiation—from radioactive fallout, radiation accidents, or a large number of chest X-rays—also increases breast cancer risk. One recent study (Spine vol. 25, August 15, 2000) showed that women with scoliosis who were given multiple chest X-rays during puberty are 70 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than other women.

For most women, though, by far the most important risk factor for breast cancer is their lifetime exposure to estrogen. In other words, the more menstrual cycles a woman goes through in her life, the greater her breast cancer risk. The fewer cycles, the less risk: Late onset of menstruation, pregnancies (especially pregnancies before age 30), breastfeeding, and early menopause all decrease the risk of breast cancer.

Of course, it's not as if estrogen were some foreign, toxic substance. Your body is designed to make and use estrogen. But in today's industrialized world, women probably both produce and are otherwise exposed to more estrogen than ever before. We start menstruation earlier, we have smaller families later in life, we breastfeed for shorter periods of time, and we're exposed to many more estrogenlike, human-made chemicals in our food, water, and environment.

In addition, stress—the far-too-frequent stimulation of the body's fight-or-flight response—can disrupt the glandular system. Also, for proper estrogen levels to be maintained, your body's liver and kidneys must be healthy. If too much estrogen is produced or if the body isn't utilizing estrogen efficiently, the liver must break down the excess and send it to the kidneys to be flushed from the system. If the liver is overworked, sluggish from dealing with too many toxins, the excess estrogen gets reabsorbed back into the bloodstream and the body has more of the hormone than it can use.

Practice for Health
Given that many of the risk factors for breast cancer seem largely beyond our control—we may choose to have babies and breastfeed, but we didn't choose our gender and we can't choose when we begin and stop menstruating or, for the most part, how much radiation we absorb—it might not be apparent how yoga can help. But your yoga practice can make a contribution in three major ways: regulating the endocrine system and thus the balance of hormones to which you're exposed; strengthening the immune system, especially by stimulating the flow of lymph; and providing both a philosophy and practice for creating a healthy relationship with our bodies and with the world around us.

Many yogis believe that both a well-rounded yoga practice and specific asanas support the endocrine glands in maintaining an optimal balance of hormones in the body. According to the teachings of yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, inversions are the body's best friend. A number of critical glands—the pineal, thyroid, parathyroid, and thymus—are all located in the head, neck, and chest. Simply getting your feet over your head is thought to improve circulation to these glands, which can then work better.

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Reader Comments

Janet Hartman

Sandy, your words of wisdom have inspired me to search for any and all means to keep me cancer free. I have googled lots of words since my breast cancer scare, and breast thermography sounds like it won't hurt my poor breast! I'm checking it out. Thanks


I have gotten into the habit of researching alternative care since my breast cancer scare earlier this year, during which I discovered a diagnostic called Thermography that can detect possible breast cancer almost a decade before it even becomes a tumor. Furthermore it does this safely and without squishing your breasts, instead creating a heat map of the blood flow in your breasts. Google "breast thermography" and read about it. It's been FDA approved since the 70's! However it's not backed up by "big pharma" and has not made the mainstream like mammography.

We have to be educated consumers of healthcare and of caring for our bodies. We educate ourselves when we shop around for a car, we should do the same when it comes to caring for our bodies. We cannot afford to blindly and unquestioningly (is that a word?) follow any doctor's advice, or make decisions about our bodies simply based on what everyone else is doing - it can, for some, cost us our health, or sometimes even our lives.

Sarah Howe

Thank you for the important information on the effects of yoga to the body and mind in relation to breast health. As a yoga teacher I will share these statistics with my students and as an athlete, while I attempt the 3 Day Walk for breast cancer in Boston, my thoughts will be with all those that have been touched by this disease.

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