Breast cancer is not one disease but many, presenting in many different ways and driven by many different factors. Despite advances in treatment, outcomes are still unpredictable and seemingly random. In fact, cancer seems infuriatingly random. Why do some people smoke for forty years and never get cancer, while some have exemplary ‘healthy’ lifestyles and still face diagnosis? Some of that randomness can be explained by individual genetic differences, and these differences can be targeted to improve cancer outcomes.
You Can Change Gene Behaviour
If you went to school in the 20th Century you were probably taught that your genes are a rigid blueprint for life, predicting not only your eye colour but also your risk of many diseases. Luckily for us, that early understanding of how DNA works has been superseded. Our genes certainly do control our health, but they work in response to the instructions we give them – instructions provided by the food we eat, the light we see, the exercise we take, the chemicals we are exposed to and the thoughts we think. Moreover, although we all have the same genes (barring the XY chromosomes), we also have small variations in those genes, called Single Nucleotide Polymorphism, or SNPs, that create significant differences in the way we function. SNPs affect our hormone balance, the way we sleep, the way we make our energy, our response to environmental toxins, and the way we handle stress; they help us pinpoint functional nutrient deficiencies, and highlight the pathways to support.
Of all the testing available, I believe nutrigenomics provides the best insights available for improving breast cancer outcomes. Nutrigenomics helps to explain why some people are more vulnerable to cancer than others; why some people respond differently to treatment; and why some people are more likely to reach the 5-year survival goal. More importantly, and unlike many of the genetic tests provided within the medical context, the tests look at the way YOU function, not the way the tumour functions, and they come with an instruction manual on how to improve gene expression to support greater health. In other words, nutrigenomic testing provides answers, not just a depressing diagnosis. When combined with functional testing we can look at gene expression as well as gene structure to create a measurable personalised protocol. This can be particularly important for women trying to make decisions around adjuvant hormonal therapy and HRT.
The Power of Nutrigenomics
For me, nutrigenetics is not just an add-on test to include in a nutritional therapy consultation, it forms the foundation of my work, providing the ultimate in personalised nutrition. The science of ‘single nucleotide polymorphisms’ seems to me uniquely applicable to breast cancer. Using nutrigenomics we can take the nutrition science, the cancer science and the genetic science and look at them in the context of your health situation to help you focus on the areas where you are vulnerable. The DNA tests that I commission on your behalf will provide you with six in-depth genetic reports looking at key areas for breast cancer: Core Nutrients, Hormone Balance, Detoxification, Metabolism, Methylation and Nervous System. Each of these reports is highly relevant to breast cancer onset, diagnosis and recovery, and a useful resource in their own right. (If you were to buy them direct from the lab, they would cost more than the price of our consultation.) In fact, the Metabolism report is brand new and provides vital clues into the sort of diet that is likely to suit you – particularly important for those trying to decide on low carb, low fat or keto options. Just to be clear there are no ‘off the peg’ genetic testing services that are able to provide this level of personalisation at this point, and there is no substitute for having a qualified human being look at your genetic results in a personal context. Looking at single SNP results is by no means as powerful as considering a group of SNPs in context. As a result, I believe the analysis I provide is unique: uniquely rigorous, uniquely layered, uniquely focussed, and uniquely personal.
Nutrigenomics and Breast Cancer
In recent years, research into the role of SNPs in health has found important correlations with breast cancer, and we have only just begun this fascinating study. For example, women with the CYP19A1 and GSTM1 SNPs are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. And what do these two genes do? They control the amount of oestrogen we make, and provide a pathway for its safe detoxification. If CYP19A1 is upregulated we are more at risk of oestrogen related disease, and if GSTM1 is absent, as it frequently is, there is more risk that oestrogen can cause DNA damage. But because we also know about the nutritional factors that can slow down CYP19A1 and speed up GSTM1, we can improve that pathway and, in doing so, improve the way your body handles hormones.
This is just one of the ways that nutrigenomics can help us to understand why we may be vulnerable to breast cancer, and how we can reduce the risk of recurrence in future. The diagram below shows many of the genetic pathways we will look at together and each of the yellow circles highlights a key area of risk that can be supported by nutrigenomics.
You might say, why don’t we all cover all the risk factors and not worry about the expensive testing? That’s one way to do it, and it can be helpful. But to be honest, in 25 years of survivorship, I have found it pretty difficult to cover all the areas that relate to breast cancer risk, and since I ‘discovered’ nutrigenomics, I have benefited from knowing which areas are more important for me to focus on. For example, my alcohol processing genes are ‘normal’ (aka ‘wild type’) which puts me at no greater risk than the general population when I have a glass or two of wine. But I do have the GSTM1 deletion mentioned above which means I have to pay attention to glutathione levels, ensuring I eat plenty of the foods that boost this vital nutrient, and avoid exposing myself to too many things that deplete it. I have also found it comforting to understand how I’m made a bit differently and why I may have been diagnosed so young.
DNA testing can make sure your recovery plan is designed to work with your body and not against it. Although the work is highly technical it still sits in that magical place that supplies the raw materials that your body needs, honours the way your body works, and then stands back and allows healing to happen. This isn’t just about understanding your health, it’s about understanding how you tick. In consultation, I have watched time and time again as people have suddenly gained a deeper understanding of an issue they’ve struggled with all their lives, and it’s wonderful to support this journey of self-discovery. Not only does nutrigenomics help you make better treatment choices, pinpoint vulnerabilities, and plan recovery, it can help you manage your mood and stress responses and support your self-care decisions. It’s powerful stuff!
DNA testing is easy and non-invasive: the test is done at home with a simple cheek swab that you post back to the lab. The resulting reports cover more than 150 SNPS that relate to the key breast cancer risks. Perhaps it’s worth explaining that this type of genetic testing does not look at well-known cancer genes, such as the BRCA1 & 2 mutations. Neither does it look at any genetic mutations that may, or may not, be present in your tumour cells, which is the focus of Oncotype testing. Alongside the valuable information provided in the Lifecode Gx reports I will explain how your results relate to your breast cancer diagnosis highlighting key foods, nutrients and lifestyle factors that are particularly important for you, identifying risk factors and areas of focus.
In my view, nutrigenomic testing makes sense for everyone dealing with breast cancer, no matter what your age, stage or prognosis. Fine-tuning your genes can help you deal with your diagnosis, support your body to withstand more treatment, help to minimise side effects, protect and rehabilitate your genome and, of course, pave the way for better future health.
If you’d like to explore your genome with me, please book an appointment below:
Picture: Artwork by Tracey Emin from a photograph by Dawn Waldron