Soy And Breast Cancer Recurrence

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues

The Truth About Soy And Breast Cancer

 Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

SoybeanYou’ve probably heard the warnings: “Soy may increase the risk of breast cancer!” “Women with breast cancer shouldn’t use soy!”

The first warning was never true. Numerous clinical studies have shown that consumption of soy protein is associated with a lower risk of developing breast cancer.

Furthermore, the science behind the second warning has never been very strong. The concerns that soy might stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells was based primarily on cell culture experiments and one experiment in mice – even though a second experiment in mice came to the exact opposite conclusion.

Was The Hypothesis That Soy Could Increase The Risk Of Breast Cancer Recurrence Plausible?

The possibility that soy isoflavones could stimulate the growth of estrogen- responsive breast cancer was biochemically plausible because soy isoflavones bind to the estrogen receptor and have a very weak stimulatory effect (much weaker than estrogen itself).

Even that evidence was not definitive because soy isoflavones also turn on several tumor suppressor pathways in breast cells and help strengthen the immune system – so they could just as easily inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.

However, because the concerns were plausible and had not been definitively disproved, most experts, including me, recommended for several years that women with estrogen- responsive breast cancer might want to avoid soy protein.

Has The Hypothesis Been Rigorously Tested?

In fact, the definitive clinical studies have been performed, and it turns out for women who are breast cancer survivors, consumption of soy foods does not increase either the risk of breast cancer recurrence or of dying from breast cancer.

The first of these studies was reported in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers at Vanderbilt University and Shanghai Institute of Preventive Medicine (Shu et al, JAMA, 302: 2437-2443, 2009).

It was a large, well designed, study that enrolled 5042 Chinese women aged 20 to 75 years old who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and followed them for an average period of 3.9 years.

The women were divided into four groups based on the soy content of their diet (ranging from 5 grams/day to 15 grams/day). The results were clear cut. Breast cancer survivors with the highest soy intake had 25% less chance of breast cancer recurrence and 25% less chance of dying from breast cancer than the women with the lowest soy intake.

The effect was equally strong for women with estrogen receptor-positive and estrogen receptor negative cancers, for early stage and late stage breast cancer and for pre- and post-menopausal women. In short this was a very robust study.

The study also showed that soy protein intake did not interfere with tamoxifen, a drug that blocks the binding of estrogen to its receptor on cancer cells. Tamoxifen is used for both for treating estrogen-responsive breast cancer and preventing its recurrence. In this study, the reduction in the risk of breast cancer recurrence & death was just as great whether the breast cancer survivors were taking tamoxifen or not.

In fact, tamoxifen was protective only for women with low soy intake. It conferred no extra protection for the women at the highest level of soy intake because the soy isoflavones were also blocking the binding of estrogen to its receptor.

Other Clinical Studies

If that were the only published clinical study to test the soy-breast cancer hypothesis, I and other experts would be very cautious about making definitive statements. However, at least four more clinical studies have been published since then, both in Chinese and American populations. The studies have either shown no significant effect of soy on breast cancer recurrence or a protective effect. None of them have shown any detrimental effects of soy consumption by breast cancer survivors.

A meta-analysis of all 5 studies was published earlier this year (Chi et al, Asian Pac J Cancer Prev., 14: 2407-2412, 2013). This study combined the data from 11,206 breast cancer survivors in the US and China. Those with the highest soy consumption had a 23% decrease in recurrence and a 15% decrease in mortality from breast cancer.

The Bottom Line:

What does this mean for you if you are a breast cancer survivor?

1)     There are many reasons to include soy protein foods as part of a healthy diet. Soy foods are one of the highest quality vegetable protein sources and provide a great alternative to many of the high fat, high cholesterol animal proteins in the American diet.

2)     I personally feel that these studies are clear cut enough that breast cancer survivors no longer need to fear soy protein as part of a healthy diet.

3)     The responsible websites agree with this assessment. For example, WebMD and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) both say that breast cancer survivors need no longer worry about eating moderate amounts of soy foods.

4)     The irresponsible websites (I won’t name names, but you know who they are) are still warning breast cancer survivors to avoid soy completely. As a scientist I really have problem with people who are unwilling to change their opinions in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

5)     Of course, some of those bloggers have now shifted their arguments to say that it is unfermented or genetically modified soy that causes breast cancer. Those statements are equally bogus – but that’s another story for another time.

6)     Finally, I want to emphasize that the published studies merely show that soy does not increase the risk of breast cancer and is safe to use for breast cancer survivors. None of those studies suggest that soy is an effective treatment for breast cancer. The protective effects of soy are modest at best. If you have breast cancer, consult with your physician about the best treatment options for you.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (6)

  • Pam

    |

    Dr. Chaney — THANK YOU for the clarification!! I found this article easy to understand!

    Reply

  • Marie

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    This is fantastic information! I am wondering how estrogen plays a role in soy consumption for the average person. Many doctors claim that pumping estrogen (by means of soy consumption) into men or nursing babies through their mother’s milk is dangerous and can be harmful, possibly sterilizing, men. Do these claims hold any truth?

    Reply

    • sysadmin_htftp

      |

      Dear Stella,
      That information is also misleading. Look for an article in a few weeks summarizing the latest clinical studies on the effects of soy consumption on men.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Susan

    |

    I am so glad to see this article and the timing is perfect for me. I have discussed with my Medical Oncologist, my soy protein shakes. I am in chemotherapy , my hormonal status is estrogen positive and she advised, she would prefer I did not have any soy products.

    I am going to take a copy of your email to my chemo appointment next Tuesday and see if she will change her mind.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful information.

    Reply

    • sysadmin_htftp

      |

      Dear Susan,
      You are doing exactly the right thing by discussing this information with your doctor. I can only report on the results of published clinical studies that represent the average effects of soy on breast cancer recurrence in a large group of breast cancer survivors. However, you are unique. What applies to the group as a whole, may not apply to you as an individual. That is why your oncologist is the best person to evaluate the data and give you the advice that best applies to you as an individual.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Teresa Robinson

    |

    Thanks, Dr. Chaney. Several in my family and several friends have had breast cancer. The topic is one that is always top of mind.

    Reply

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Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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