The Oil of Life

Diet's compelling new role in breast cancer reduction

Breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women in the United States. If it’s detected early — stage 0 through 2 — there’s at least a 93 percent survival rate, according to the American Cancer Society.

But detection at stage 3 drops the chance of survival to 72 percent, with stage 4 survival at just 22 percent.

Early detection is vital, but a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine could move doctors toward not just detecting and treating it, but also preventing breast cancer.

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A panel of doctors and scientists from Spain examined how the Mediterranean diet — based on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and extra-virgin olive oil — could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The study involved 7,500 people who had been matched by such factors as age, race, body-mass index, and exercise and alcohol intake habits.

These people were divided into three groups that followed a regimented diet: Mediterranean with extra-virgin olive oil as the fat source; Mediterranean with nuts for fats; and a regular low-fat diet. The results were promising for cardiovascular disease, but the doctors also tracked the development of five different types of cancers.

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They found that people in the group who consumed extra-virgin olive oil in their diet were 62 percent less likely to develop malignant breast cancer.

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Dr. Leena Hilakivi-Clarke from the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University told LifeZette the study produced “exciting results.” It was unique in that it replicated methods often employed in studies of animal diets.

“It’s difficult to take one particular compound and measure its difference in the human diet because our diet is so complex,” said Hilakivi-Clarke.

This study, however, “actually managed to limit the diets,” she said.

“It was interventional in the same way as in animal studies,” Hilakivi-Clarke said. This makes the results of the study even more promising and interesting.

As to what makes the olive oil so helpful, doctors can’t really say. Previous studies of cancer in animals have used compounds from olive oil with favorable results, showing reduced damage from oxidation, reduced cancer cell proliferation, and even a boost in immune system response. One compound in particular, known as oleocanthal (the compound that causes the oil to burn in the back of your throat), could potentially block the spread of cancer cells.

But you can’t just buy any type of olive oil from the grocery store. Not all oils are created equal.

Extra-virgin olive oil is the purest type — straight from the first press of the olives — and has met rigorous testing standards for acidity and peroxide levels. Other types of olive oil are often extracted using chemicals or industrial refining. But extra-virgin olive oil is basically pure fruit juice with no additives.

Related: Is Organic Food Worth It?

Melanie Grossman of San Francisco has been free of breast cancer for 13 years.

The 72-year-old mother of three and grandmother of four was in shock when her primary care physician detected a lump during a regular checkup that had not been noticed in her mammogram. The diagnosis — stage 1 breast cancer.

“Now I have a mindset of what is good for everybody’s health at the table.”

“I had been very healthy, and it was the last thing on my mind,” she said. “I thought, ‘How could this happen to me?'”

As the wife of a cardiologist, Grossman had been following a heart-healthy diet similar to the Mediterranean diet, loaded with fish, fruits, and vegetables. But she said she soon realized that while she had been consciously helping her family make healthy food choices, she had sometimes taken shortcuts with her own diet.

“A lot of times I would cook fish for my husband and then something quick and easy for myself,” she said.

Now she uses olive oil almost exclusively in her cooking.

“If this could happen to me — it could definitely happen to my two daughters, who also have breast cancer on their paternal side of the family tree,” Grossman said.

“Before, if I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner, it was more about the traditional foods,” she said. “Now I have a mindset of what is good for everybody’s health at the table.”

Here are some recipes, from family and other sources, that can add a little more olive oil to your diet:


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