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Alternative Thyroid Treatments in the News

Perhaps you heard the recent CBC Radio report about an alternative treatment called “desiccated thyroid” for people with hypothyroidism (low thyroid function). This treatment is in fact an old treatment, often called “Armour Thyroid”, or simply “Thyroid” in Canada, and used by many naturopathic doctors in states and provinces where prescribing rights exist. Following is an explanation of why desiccated thyroid is sometimes more effective than the commonplace synthroid prescription, and why perhaps neither prescription is ideal for weight-loss and a healthy thyroid gland.

Hypothyroidism is commonly diagnosed when blood tests show that a brain hormone called TSH, is too high. TSH rises when the thyroid gland slows its production of a hormone called thyroxine, or T4. Most physicians treat this condition with a synthetic form of T4, commonly known as Synthroid, Eltroxin, or Levothyroxine. Your body should convert this T4 into a more active form called T3. Desiccated thyroid contains both T4 and T3, such that your body isn’t required to convert the T4 into T3. Some health practitioners report that desiccated thyroid may treat hypothyroid symptoms in patients who fail to feel the benefits of synthroid even though their blood work appears normal.

A safety concern exists when you bypass the body’s regulatory mechanisms by providing it with an active hormone, such as T3. Where circumventing the need for conversion can be helpful for some people, it can also be harmful for others. (The same argument applies to the use of most synthetic hormones used in medicine, including the birth control pill and hormone replacement therapy.) The matter is further complicated by the consideration that by offering the body a synthetic hormone, you encourage the gland to stop producing its own hormone, making the body arguably dependent on the use of a daily prescription.

At times, there are ways to effectively treat hypothyroidism without the use of synthetic hormones. These methods view low thyroid function as a symptom rather than the problem to treat. Sometimes blood tests are required, and these can be ordered by a medical doctor (MD) or naturopathic doctor (ND). Your symptoms often provide the most significant clues in the determination of the root cause, which might be in another gland or tissue connected to thyroid function, such as the liver, kidneys, and adrenals. Your body may be deficient in any one of multiple nutrients required to make, convert, or respond to thyroid hormones, including iodine, zinc, copper, selenium, tyrosine, and vitamin A. Sometimes utilization of these nutrients is affected by environmental exposure to pesticides or foods, such as soy or cabbage. Stress, allergies, and menopause can also negatively impact thyroid function. For some dietary tips on managing low thyroid function, please read an article I wrote for Within Kingston magazine last year, posted here on my website.

Sometimes the most effective and successful medical intervention for low thyroid function is a prescription for synthetic hormones. At other times, if the thyroid gland is given the right tools, it could work without the use of a pharmaceutical, and the condition could heal. All too often a thorough assessment for the presence of these tools is lacking… and the opportunity is presented for a thorough examination by a health practitioner skilled in the use of whole body healing.

Butter vs. Margarine: Not just a debate for dieters

Back when the latest research supported the idea that “fats make us fat” and likely caused heart attacks, functional food manufacturers cleverly re-framed the old idea of margarine as the new heart-healthy and weight-friendly butter alternative. The Dieticians of Canada, the American Dietetic Association, and many mainstream health professionals currently recommend consuming non-hydrogenated margarine products. However, the evidence is not as clear-cut as you might expect, and it’s worth taking a second look at whether margarine is a healthier alternative to butter just because it’s lower in saturated fat.

Until rather recently, most margarine products underwent a manufacturing process called hydrogenation that changed the chemical structure of unsaturated oils to saturated fats, which are harder at room temperature. This process uses potentially toxic metal catalysts such as nickel and cadmium, and creates a by-product called trans-fats that many of us now know are associated with heart disease and cancer. Some research also links trans-fats with the development of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and infertility, and is the reason for numerous health warnings from such institutions as the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Science. Consequently, health experts recommend that you avoid any product with “hydrogenation” or “partial-hydrogenation” in the ingredient list.

More recent margarines are manufactured by a different process (contributed to by research at Guelph and Dalhousie universities), and may be labeled “trans-fat free” (i.e. less than 0.2 grams of trans-fats per serving). However, margarine still contains manufactured saturated fats. Data from a well known study called the Framingham study (among others), indicates that consumption of margarine actually statistically significantly increases a man’s risk of developing heart disease. Some experts suggest that this relationship exists not because of the manufactured saturation per se, but likely because the high-heat and high-pressure manufacturing process creates oxidized (rancid) oils that cause cellular damage. (By contrast, vegetables contain “anti-oxidants” which protect against cellular damage.) Margarine also generally contains multiple chemical additives and preservatives with broad negative health impacts, and may be created with various chemical solvents and emulsifiers.

Butter from pasture-fed cows contains a natural trans-fat called vaccenic acid that is actually healthy for us. Our bodies convert it to something called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which research shows may actually have weight-loss, anti-cancer, and cholesterol-lowering properties. Butter also contains healthy fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A and D.

How is it possible for rigorous science to demonstrate that margarine is both superior and inferior to butter? When research isolates one chemical, such as saturated fat, and evaluates it against a health risk, such as heart disease, the study result may be inappropriately extrapolated and applied against whole foods that contain the isolated ingredient. So, just because butter contains saturated fat, and because some research demonstrates a link between saturated fat and heart disease, we can not assume that butter causes heart disease. Many population studies suggest that butter consumption is in no way related, or even possibly protective, against heart disease.

That said, relative to other whole, nutrient-dense foods, butter is near the bottom of the list for heart health and weight management. For whole body health, the research comes down to this: When consuming healthy amounts of good dietary fat (20% to 30% of total daily calories), focus on plant sources, whether saturated or not. Avoid animal fats (except wild, cold-water fish), and avoid synthesized/manufactured fat sources, including margarine. This will improve overall health and reduce risk of numerous chronic diseases.

Fat Glossary

Most foods contain a combination of many fats. These fats may be categorized according to their degree of chemical “saturation” (i.e. the number of double bonds present), which determines whether the fat is solid or liquid at room temperature. Here is a quick review of the somewhat complicated fat terminology.

Saturated fat: Chemically, no double bonds exist so that carbon molecules are saturated with hydrogen atoms. The molecules fit tightly together, producing a solid at room temperature. Includes most animals fats (e.g. butter) and tropical oils (e.g. palm and coconut). Is associated with heart disease, however, much research indicates that coconut oil may protect the heart and inhibit weight-gain. Also includes some “short-chain fatty acids” which are anti-microbial, protect the immune system, and are a primary food source for healthy intestinal cells.

Unsaturated fat: Chemically, double bonds exist, so that the molecules are not able to pack tightly together, creating a liquid or semi-solid product at room temperature. Includes poly-unsaturated (e.g. vegetable oil), mono-unsaturated (e.g. olive oil), and essential fatty acid (e.g. omega-3) varieties.

Trans-fat: A chemically “flipped” fat that is a byproduct of the hydrogenation manufacturing process. Healthy trans-fats also exist naturally in some animal fats.

Hydrogenated fat: Unsaturated fats, such as liquid vegetable oils, that have undergone a manufacturing process whereby the oils are chemically infused with hydrogen molecules to become “saturated” and solid or semi-solid at room temperature. Relative to naturally-occurring animal fats, these partially-hydrogenated or hydrogenated fats are often less expensive, have a longer shelf-life, a more desirable consistency for commercially baked products, and a may include a harmful byproduct called trans-fats.

Clean Water Essentials

Most of us know that water is essential for life, and makes up between 50% and 90% of our bodies. Even bone tissue is approximately 22% water. Water is critical for oxygen transport throughout our body, cellular energy production, and even regulation of genetic material. Symptoms of dehydration include irritability, constipation, headaches, and fatigue. Chronic, even minimal dehydration can lead to weight-gain, depression, allergies, heart disease, chronic low energy, hormone imbalances, and chronic pain. Clean drinking water is one of the most simple, yet powerful components of an optimal wellness plan.

Water intake recommendations vary. My general recommendation is to drink 35mL of water for every kg of body weight (16mL per lb), in addition to the water you consume in food. More water is recommended for those who eat a high-protein diet, consume diuretics, experience frequent diarrhea or vomiting, and who regularly exercise strenuously. Less water may be required for individuals who consume more than 7 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables in a day.

Drinking this much water can also be dangerous: Water can be the trojan horse that carries toxic chemicals into our body. A trusted water filtration system is an important part of a general health or wellness plan.

Most sources agree now that bottled water carries numerous health risks, including exposure to cancer-causing chemicals and poor safety regulation by government authorities. The Environmental Working Group has published some of their own research, here.

Kingston tap water is drawn from Lake Ontario and is heavily chlorinated to protect us from bacterial and viral contamination. With the exception of CFB Kingston, Kingston does not add fluoride to its water. Kingston tap water is susceptible to seasonal fluctuations of algae, and some homes still receive their water from old lead pipes or from copper pipes with lead solder. Most of this information may be found on the Utilities Kingston website, here. The new Canadian Drinking Water Standards recently lowered the acceptable lead concentration in drinking water from 50 parts per billion, to 10 parts per billion.

Some sources estimate that 20% of a person’s exposure to lead comes from their drinking water. Lead is a heavy metal that is difficult for the body to excrete. The body may find it easier to store small amounts safely in bone tissue, which may only become a concern bone starts to degenerate, such as in osteoporosis and during menopause, causing a slow leak of lead back into the bloodstream.

The Santevia water unit available at KIHC removes organic chemicals such as chlorine, and heavy metals, from your tap water. The unit is environmentally friendly, unlike a reverse osmosis water filtration system that produces up to 3 litres of waste water for every litre of water consumed. The Santevia system also produces alkaline water, which is essential for prevention and treatment of numerous chronic degenerative diseases, including osteoporosis, arthritis, and possibly cancer. Brita filters by comparison produce acidic water that may aggravate chronic health conditions.

The unit is available at Kingston Integrated Healthcare for $179.99, which includes all three filters.

Swine Flu and You

This season, we find ourselves flooded with public health messages about flu prevention, which includes injecting ourselves with both the seasonal and swine flu vaccines. While no one wants to catch the flu, many of us question the safety of these vaccines and wonder whether a responsible choice for ourselves and our families includes receiving the vaccines, or refusing them.

The mainstream medical paradigm encourages prevention by focusing on controlling the virus, rather than by supporting the person who might contract the virus. Medical systems such as Naturopathic Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Homeopathy, encourage prevention by ensuring a balanced immune system that won’t under- or over-react to a virus. This provides you with broad protection against viruses and the bacteria responsible for many complications from the flu.

The swine flu is very virulent, meaning that it is can be transmitted easily from person to person. However, it is considered to be less deadly than most flu viruses. This may be partly because of the other unusual quality of H1N1: it tends to affect healthy people age 5 to 24 who presumably are less likely to develop complications from the flu. Two main theories may explain this strange age-related phenomenon and provide essential clues for best prevention practices.

The principle theory suggests that younger people are more likely to develop symptoms of the H1N1 flu because their immune system overreacts to the virus and creates a “cytokine storm”, which causes more damage than the virus itself. In this case, flu prevention requires that a person balances the immune system, rather than stimulates it, so that complications are less likely to occur. If you use herbs to combat the flu virus, please choose your herbs carefully.

The second theory is that the virus isn’t attacking young people per se, but that older people are responding less to the virus because they already carry some natural immunity. The 2009 H1N1 virus may be related to the original 1918 Spanish Flu H1N1 virus, which affected the human population most strongly before 1956. People who were exposed to H1N1 before 1956 may carry some natural immunity against the 2009 version.

To control the spread of H1N1, Canada entered into a $400 million dollar contract with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline to provide Canadians with an H1N1 flu vaccine. This vaccine also contains an adjuvant (known as AS03 in the Canadian vaccines), that increases your body’s immune response to the inactivated virus. Preliminary results by GSK suggest 100% immunity to the virus within 3 weeks of receiving the flu shot.

Though the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that there are no significant safety concerns regarding these adjuvants, Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration have not yet approved them. Governments are fast-tracking these approvals to beat the flu wave and many research bodies caution against their approval under these strict timelines. The vaccine is a cause for concern for the following reasons:

Ongoing unpublished research in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec, suggests that people who received the seasonal flu vaccine last year may have an increased chance of catching the swine flu this season.

The oil component of the adjuvant called squalene is linked to a rare but serious autoimmune disease called Guillain Barre Syndrome, and a condition known as Gulf War Syndrome that developed in soldiers who received experimental anthrax vaccines. Some authors go so far as to link slow, progressive neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s with chronic, squalene-induced brain inflammation. Furthermore, the potential interaction between squalene and thimerosol, a mercury preservative in these vaccines, has not been adequately studied. Thimerosol is also linked to the development of some neurological disorders, (though much current research suggests otherwise).

Finally, the strict vaccination schedule intended to minimize the impact of a flu pandemic might in-fact worsen the situation by encouraging development of vaccine-resistant viruses. Anti-viral drug-resistant strains of H1N1 have already been identified.

Regardless of whether you decide to receive the vaccine, the benefits of a more balanced, capable immune system are incontrovertible. Here are some ways you can help to protect yourself and your family during this flu season:

Good hygiene practices: H1N1 can infect a person for 2 to 8 hours after being deposited on hard surfaces such as stainless steel and plastic, and for a few minutes after being deposited on soft surfaces. Be sure to wash your hands frequently, cough and sneeze into your elbow or a handkerchief, clean surfaces with your usual disinfectant, and stay home if you feel ill and have a fever.

Make healthier dietary choices: Avoid sugar and refined grains, such as bread and baked goods, which can inhibit the immune system. Replace pro-inflammatory red meats and dairy with anti-inflammatory “good” omega-3 fats, available in fish or in a high-quality fish oil supplement. Eat 6 servings of colourful vegetables daily, and eat plenty of fresh garlic, which has potent anti-viral properties.

Keep mucous membranes moist by using a humidifier and keeping up water intake, (generally 35mL of water for each kg of body weight). This will help prevent the virus from latching on, and keep the immune cells in that part of your body healthy. Also, avoid alcohol and coffee which can be dehydrating.

Don’t underestimate the impact of stress and lack of sleep! Much evidence demonstrates how these situations inhibit optimal immune function.

Finally, prevent infection by keeping your immune system balanced with supplements, including 2000 to 4000 IU vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), vitamin C with flavonoids, and a high-quality probiotic (such as Genestra’s HMF forte). Most people with hectic lifestyles in our northern climate will benefit from these nutrients. A qualified health practitioner may further prescribe an individualized botanical combination or homeopathic medicine that helps to balance rather than stimulate your immune system.

The above suggestions may work in lieu of, or in conjunction with the vaccines, should you choose to receive them. However, please consider that the complex healing mechanisms of your body are possibly more capable of managing a novel virus than a novel man-made pharmaceutical.

Are you Happy with your Healthcare Experience?

As appears in the September issue of SNAP Kingston publication.

When I ask this question, people generally tell me of their frustration with wait times, physicians with no time to listen, and a medical system that treats only one part of their body at a time. Other regular concerns include side effects of pharmaceuticals, and what seems to be a medical system with a near complete disregard for real prevention and environmentalism. Fortunately, the face of healthcare is changing and people are pleased to discover more healthcare options than ever before.

There are many medical systems to choose from, provided by highly educated, government-regulated professionals. They generally are not covered by OHIP, but many private health plans will reimburse members for these medical costs, including those by naturopathic doctors, registered massage therapists, acupuncturists, and counselors. .

Naturopathic Doctors function like the family doctors of complementary and alternative medicine. Their medical system integrates Western, mainstream medicine with other medical systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and botanicals (herbs). Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes acupuncture, is a 5000 year old system that is very effective for pain management, female health… Both medicines treat the whole body and root cause of disease. They understand how the body is entirely integrated in itself, and with the environment.

Counseling is an essential component of any health program. Understanding how your lifestyle and mental health contribute to your physical state is essential for true healing to occur.

I encourage you to explore these medical options and find a system that matches your personal values and health requirements.

Kingston Integrated Healthcare

As many of you already know, I have recently opened a new multi-disciplinary health clinic and am thrilled to be working with other health professionals, including a Registered Massage Therapist, Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, and Life Coach. This is the first centre in Kingston to host an integrated team of registered or licensed complementary and alternative medical professionals. Please visit our website, www.kihc.ca.

Achieving Truly Healthy Skin

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.
~ Kahlil Gibran

Pro-Aging

Traditionally, healthy skin is considered a sign of beauty, and our society generally equates aged skin with “unhealthy”, or deficiency, which is not beautiful. This standard is fundamentally inadequate and, thankfully, pro-aging concepts are slowly leaking into mainstream thinking. Older skin can certainly be beautiful.

And akin to how the romantic poets describe beauty as that which comes from within, skin is a reflection of our internal health. Imbalances inside our bodies quite often generate symptoms at the level of our skin. So, while a person may pursue beautiful skin with the understanding that they are supporting internal health, my wish for you is that it is also with the understanding that you are already beautiful, no matter how healthy (or unhealthy) your skin is.

Healthy Skin from the Inside-Out

Not only is your skin your largest organ, but it is metabolically active, which means that it works hard to protect you from harmful external influences. Your skin contains many of the same enzymes present in your liver for chemical detoxification, and it houses immune cells that ward off pathogenic bacteria. When an organ as complex as your skin is unhealthy, it’s worth paying attention to.

A general principle of many medicines is that the body is a self-healing unit which will succeed if all routes of waste elimination are maintained. In other words, if your organs are working efficiently to excrete unwanted chemicals, then most processes stay in balance and your body is healthy. Unhealthy skin is certainly linked to these processes, and many associations exist between suboptimal liver function, (your main excretory organ), and unhealthy skin. In this way, healthy skin requires healthy internal organs, and healing your skin requires more than topical symptom management.

For more information about how to support your liver and improve its efficiency, please refer to my articles on detoxification. We can also work together to develop a detoxification plan that supports exactly where your individual organs need support in their elimination efficiency.

…From the Outside-In

Up to 65% of what you put on your skin may be absorbed into your bloodstream and lymph system. Using natural skin care products free of known and suspected cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) could relieve some of the burden on your body’s elimination organs. Please refer to this detailed reference guide for more chemical-specific information: Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors: Chemicals and Synthetics to Avoid in Personal Care Products

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) also publishes a Skin Deep database that contains hundreds of brand names rated for safety by EWG researchers. (A sunscreen guide is also available here.) See how your favourite cosmetic brand was rated! Toxic Products Cosmetic Database.

Truly natural body-care products are hard to come by in Kingston! This is why I’ve researched and brought in two body-care companies, Rocia from Belleville, and Ferlow Botanicals, from Vancouver. For those individuals who would go a little bit farther to achieve changes in skin health, I’d like to introduce Mei Zen(TM) cosmetic acupuncture, also available at KIHC. Mei Zen(TM) is considered by many to be a healthy alternative to cosmetic surgery.

Cosmetic Acupuncture: Needles over the Knife

Traditional Chinese Medicine understands more than many other medical systems that beauty comes from the inside-out. Mei Zen(TM) acupuncture is a technique that combines an individualized whole-body balancing acupuncture treatment with a specific protocol to improve facial skin tone, comparable to cosmetic surgery, botox, or a “face-lift”. The treatment appears to improve blood flow to the face, which encourages the body to synthesize collagen and elastin for improved skin and muscle tone. More information about cosmetic acupuncture may be viewed here. You may also read a New York Times fashion article about Mei Zen acupuncture, here.

Mei Zen(TM) acupuncture is now offered by KIHC’s Traditional Chinese Medicine expert, Jennifer Foster. Jennifer offers complimentary 15-minute consultations for anyone requesting more information about this technique or Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnosis and treatment in general.

Finally, Clean Skincare Products!

Rocia(TM)

What Are You Feeding Your Skin?

Rocia is a new line of natural skin care and mineral makeup products developed by two local Belleville ladies known as The Leading Lady Image Consultants. Their products are free of suspected and known carcinogens such as parabens, phthalates, EDTA, and sodium lauryl sulfate. (Many of these chemcials are found in other “natural” skincare products, including Avon, Aloette, and Aveda.)

The Leading Lady Image Consultants expect their new website to be up and running in a few weeks. Their products are on display at KIHC and orders may be placed at the front reception desk.

Ferlow Botanicals

Ferlow Botanicals is a purely Canadian, family owned and operated company that specializes in organic personal care products. My favourites so far include the neem tree toothpaste and the calendula shampoo. This company also carries a variety of products with neem, or Azidirachta indica, an antimicrobial alternative to tea tree oil that may be used to treat acne, dandruff, athlete’s foot, or skin fungal infections. Their website contains well researched information about neem, and a guide to toxic personal-care product chemicals.

GreenUp Winner!

Congratulations to the winner of our draw prize, Nancy Sinclair! Nancy won a gift basket of Genestra supplements, valued at over $200.

As promised, the articles available at our booth are posted in electronic form here on our website:

Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors: Chemicals and Synthetics to Avoid in Personal Care Products

The Lancet: Health gap between rich and poor is lowest in areas with the greenest environments.

Maclean’s: Gut Wrenching. November 2008.

Food Allergies: The Hidden Cause of your Health Concerns?

Food intolerances are far more common and complicated than most people know. Reactions to food can show up in almost any body system and cause almost any symptom, up to 72 hours after eating the offending food. Numerous scientific studies link food reactions to chronic health conditions including fatigue, eczema, migraines, arthritis, menstrual pain, and irritable bowel syndrome. Even anxiety, depression, and ADHD have been linked to food reactions. Investing a small amount of time or money now in identifying problematic foods can be rewarding for a lifetime.

Healthy eating for you is not necessarily healthy eating for your colleagues or family members. Numerous Asian medical systems (some dating back more than 3000 years) understand quite clearly how to use diet to balance individual body types, regardless of genetic inheritance. Each food has qualities that may be used to balance the opposite quality in a person. For example, a person with a “yang deficiency” who often feels cold, such as someone with low thyroid function, may benefit from warming foods with a high “yang’ quality, such as onions, ginger, and cinnamon. Similarly, people in a cold Canadian climate would benefit from eating a diet rich in warming foods. In this way, foods may be thoroughly tailored to a particular individual’s state of health and environment. Asian dietary therapy is well presented in Paul Pitchford’s book: Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition.

From a Western medical perspective, food intolerances may be identified by food allergy testing or by dietary experimentation, a process in which suspect foods are eliminated and then reintroduced to the diet. A complete, individualized dietary plan can then be developed to promote health and prevent disease.

There are two main types of food allergies, each diagnosed with a different test. A “skin-prick” allergy test, which is performed by a traditional allergist, tests for foods that typically cause swelling or itching reactions in seconds to minutes. These allergies generally do not account for the symptoms of chronic disease listed above, which may manifest up to 72 hours after exposure. These allergies require a blood test available through specialized laboratories when ordered by a licensed health practitioner. Some insurance companies cover the cost of these tests, which generally range in price from $200 to $400. More information is available at www.usbiotek.com.

These allergy tests are useful for identifying foods that cause negative reactions by stimulating the immune system. These tests are not able to identify foods that cause reactions by other mechanisms. For example, “lactose intolerance”, in which a person experiences discomfort or pain after eating dairy products, is the result of an enzyme deficiency and not an immune response. Many chemicals in foods, including MSG, dyes, and preservatives, affect the body by routes other than the immune system, and would not necessarily show up on food allergy tests.

An elimination diet can identify most food reactions, regardless of the mechanism. Numerous suspect foods are eliminated for at least 2 to 6 weeks, and individually reintroduced in a particular sequence for at least 1 to 3 days each. This experiment is challenging, but possible for most people with the guidance of a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner. Your individual symptoms will guide a practitioner to the most likely food intolerances.

Naturopathic medicine is about applying old wisdom and new science to an individual. Experimenting with foods to identify the healthiest ones for you alone can have a tremendous impact on your quality of life, particularly if identified at a young age. For some people, this information is life-altering. Once you really start to believe that food is medicine… and that sometimes people take the wrong medicine, eating takes on a whole new significance.

Breast Cancer Prevention: Is Mammography Effective?

Consider your relationship with each of nine women in your family.  Statistically speaking, one of these women is likely to develop breast cancer in her lifetime.  Breast cancer continues to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in Canadian women.  And though most people tend to think of breast cancer as that which affects only older women, it is the leading cause of cancer death in young women aged 30 to 49.  Our medical establishments respond with recommendations that women perform monthly breast self-examinations (BSE) and biennial mammograms (breast x-rays), though recent studies suggest that both of these screening protocols are scientifically unjustified.  Some medical professionals even consider these guidelines to be harmful.  Following is an outline of some of the newest research to help a woman protect her breast health. 

A recent Statistics Canada publication states that: “Mammography is an important preventive practice for the early detection of breast cancer.”  These authors, like many authors in the mainstream medical system, use the word “prevention” to imply prevention of death.  Not prevention of breast cancer.  In other words, screening for breast cancer with mammograms and self-examinations is not the same as engaging in preventive practice.  Furthermore, a recent gold-standard statistical analysis of 7 studies involving half a million women, determined that for every 2000 women screened with mammography over 10 years, death might be prevented in 1 woman.  The unfortunate consequence is that an additional 10 healthy women would be misdiagnosed with breast cancer and receive unnecessary treatment.  Screening for breast cancer can have negative consequences.

A recent scientific statistical review suggests that breast self-examination (BSE) as a screening tool for breast cancer could also be harmful.  Of nearly 400,000 Russian and Chinese women, those who conducted BSE were not less likely to die of breast cancer compared to women who did not conduct BSE.  More importantly, the women who performed BSE were twice as likely to undergo a potentially unnecessary breast surgical procedure for suspected cancer.  These results are consistent with a Canadian study (conducted more than 15 years ago), which found that BSE and even breast examination conducted by a medical practitioner did not prolong life.

Despite this evidence, an individual woman must keep in mind that scientific studies have inherent limitations.  These population-based studies do not consider an individual woman’s hereditary risk factors for developing breast cancer, or lifestyle.  They do not separate out the benefits to women with many risk factors versus the potential risks to women who are statistically unlikely to develop breast cancer.  These studies are not able to objectively evaluate whether a woman approaches her breast screening routine with fear, or with a sense of empowerment.  How might this determine the benefit or harm of a screening exam?

Discuss your concerns with a medical professional and consider having them teach you proper breast self-examination technique with the mind set that you are maintaining health, rather than searching for disease.  When evaluating the best breast cancer screening tools for you, know your risk factors and know what you can do to reduce or eliminate those risks.  Develop a breast cancer prevention plan that matches your health philosophy with appropriate breast screening tools.