Should I avoid soy if I've had breast cancer?

Soy is an isoflavone, a class of chemical that has weak estrogen-like activity. Women in Asian countries, following a traditional diet, have a lower incidence of breast cancer than women in the US. Their diet consists of large quantities of soy foods starting at a young age, and it appears that consuming large quantities of natural soy products starting at a young age seems to confer some estrogen resistance to the breast tissue, which may account for the lower incidence of breast cancer in the Asian population.

So in this country, due to concerns about estrogen and hormone replacement therapy in terms of breast cancer risk, soy supplements are often marketed as a “natural” remedy for menopausal symptoms that may also reduce a risk of breast cancer, and women consume soy “foods” (such as hot dogs, meat substitutes, cheese substitutes) thinking that they are helping lower their risk of breast cancer. Remember that while the traditional Asian diet is high in natural soy products, it is also high in vegetables and low in animal protein and saturated fat. And there is probably more to their lower risk of breast cancer than just diet – a traditional Asian lifestyle is much different from ours in many ways. The development of breast cancer is not a simple cause-and-effect relationship in most cases – it is very complex and the importance of any one specific dietary intervention is difficult to determine.

So regarding menopausal symptoms, my advice is to go as natural as possible, which means soy in organic, whole form (edamame, miso, or tofu), regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight. Also do not underestimate the role of yoga, meditation and acupuncture. Anecdotal evidence exists suggesting that in some cases, omega 3’s, evening primrose oil, and black cohosh may help.

The topic of soy foods and cancer remains controversial. Soy foods are rich in estrogen-like substances called isoflavones, and some experts worry that these substances may boost the risk of cancer. However others believe that isoflavones compete with the body's estrogen and keep the overall estrogen in the body low.

Studies have shown that soy foods, which are a good source of lowfat protein, are safe for breast cancer survivors and may actually reduce the risk of a recurrence. Keep in mind that these studies are based on soy foods rather than supplements.

What's a breast cancer patient to do? Moderation may be the wisest approach. It's unlikely that occasionally eating a soy food would be harmful. But if you are uncomfortable about eating any soy foods, consider other sources of lean protein, such as beans and lentils. Just be sure to count the carbohydrates in these foods.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.