"The body is a huge system of equilibrium, where each function interacts with the others. Alter just one of these functions and the whole is inevitably affected. Thus, each of us can choose where we want to start: with diet, physical exercise, psychological work, or any other approach that brings more meaning and awareness into our lives... We discover that increasing awareness in one domain almost automatically leads to progress in others."
-David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD and author of Anticancer: A New Way of Life
Now that we have officially left "Breast Cancer Awareness Month" I thought it was about time to do a post on breast health! If you are a woman you probably know that breast cancer is the disease that women fear more than any other. In fact, we have an entire pink month devoted to reminding us of how inescapable and deadly it is.
Yet as scary as breast cancer is, what we currently understand about cancer may give us an edge in beating the odds. Unlike earlier theories of cancer, we now know that our bodies are constantly defending themselves against cancerous and pre-cancerous cells and that the environment you provide your cells with is either a risk factor or a preventative factor in helping those cells normalize. According to hormone-specialist Dr. Sara Gottfried, "While we don’t fully understand all the ins and outs, it’s basically your lifestyle, genetics, immune functioning and nutrition that determine whether those cancer cells grow or get removed by your personal army of immune cells."
But there is another vitally important factor in cellular health: MOVEMENT.
Research done at UC Berkeley has specifically shown that breast cancer cells respond to movement, ie. loads, forces, touch, and sensory input.
"While the traditional view of cancer development focuses on the genetic mutations within the cell, Mina Bissell, Distinguished Scientist at the Berkeley Lab, conducted pioneering experiments that showed that a malignant cell is not doomed to become a tumor, but that its fate is dependent on its interaction with the surrounding microenvironment... We are showing that tissue organization is sensitive to mechanical inputs from the environment at the beginning stages of growth and development,” said principal investigator Daniel Fletcher, professor of bioengineering at Berkeley and faculty scientist at the Berkeley Lab. “An early signal, in the form of compression, appears to get these malignant cells back on the right track.” (source)
These scientists are actually teaching the world about something called mechanotransduction, "the process by which cells sense and then translate mechanical signals (compression, tension, fluid shear) created by their physical environment into biochemical signals, allowing cells to adjust their structure and function accordingly." (source)
Mechanotransduction explains that touch itself can provide a direct mechanism of action that will affect the chemical communication of cells in the body. And it's not just touch, because all sorts of forces and loads affect cells. Every load is a unique distortion of a cell. Even gravity affects cells.
Since we know that gravity remains locationally stable (except in Interstellar), perhaps the most relevant question that we can ask here is whether/how our movements have changed, and how that might impact breast health.
We already know that modern semi-sedentary lifestyles decrease the health of our circulatory system, including the heart, and they negatively affect our metabolism and blood sugar regulation as well. Stagnation in the lymphatic system (which has no central pump and requires mechanical movement in order to work optimally) has a negative impact on our immune function as well.
Our diseases of modernity strongly correlate with our lack of regular frequent natural movement, or basic movements that we would have made in nature like flat soled walking, squatting, reaching, hanging, carrying, climbing, unassisted sitting, and sleeping on firm surfaces.
The most logical question might be: is breast cancer really any different?
Consider all the ways, both cultural and environmental, that we have altered the loads to our breasts and their surrounding muscles and tissues.
Modern behaviors reduce movement in the shoulder girdle, shorten the pectoral muscles, and create restricted range of motion in the glenohumeral (shoulder) joints. Stress creates patterns of breathing that activate the scalene muscles of the neck and the traps which lift the collar bone to increase lung space instead of allowing for the full body wave of breath that would be activated by a healthy diaphragm and a relaxed nervous system.
The natural wave-like movement of healthy breathing exerts its own unique force on the tissues of the chest and abdomen, creating movement in the ribs and underneath the breasts and potentiating micromovement through the upper lymphatic pathways that keep them flowing.
If this is simply the effect of healthy breathing and alignment, what happens when we consider the altered tissue dynamics created by tightly constricting bras, carrying bags on one shoulder, wearing organ-compressing shape-wear or clothing, and many hours of computer use and right-angle sitting every day?
What happens when we consistently restrict the musculoskeletal system? Aside from creating stagnation in the lymphatic system, tissues bond together with the connective tissue glue called fascia; we create adhesions that even further restrict movement. Your neurology creates a new "set length" for your muscles too. Yeah, your body magically makes you more "efficient" because you aren't using that range of motion! Now you require less muscular energy aka. less ATP and glucose to remain in that fixed state. Thanks, body! Just kidding. Your body is not the enemy, your habits are.
So, what's the biomechanical answer to better breast health?
Like Katy always says: "More and better quality movement."
- Incorporate more natural movements into your life: every day, every hour. Include carrying, hanging, climbing, flat shoed walking (& walking & walking), stretching, diaphragm release, full body breathing, conscious relaxation (resolution of the stress response), and squatting. In order to create health, we have to move the body as a whole but for upper torso health, hanging/stretching the arms overhead for even ten seconds every few hours is a great start. Try to do it while keeping your torso in alignment and your ribs down. You may not have as much mobility as you think!
- Practice chest opening poses to counteract the shortened pectoral posture created by computer overuse. Restorative yoga poses that open the chest are wonderful. My favorite pose is this restorative exercise floor angel (I picked the most entertaining video.) The beautiful thing about this pose is that when you're done moving your arms and are ready to relax, as long as you have your bolster correctly placed (no lower than your shoulder blades) you're in a perfect position for psoas release which is prime deep relaxation/deep breathing territory. You can stay here 5-20 minutes while you allow the rib cage to slowly drop down towards the floor. (No effort-ing it down.)
- Stay HUMAN. Even laughing and singing have a vibrational affect on the tissues of the lungs and chest, so watch funny movies and drag your friends to karaoke! ;) Allow yourself to cry! Remember how good you feel after a good cry? All of those membranes swell and then resolve giving your system a good flush.
- Manually stimulate your upper lymphatic system with self-massage.
- Touch your breasts. Not just to palpate them for lumps, but to know them. Notice how the texture and firmness changes with the ebb and flow of your hormone cycle. There is actually a theory suggesting that nipple stimulation and the resulting oxytocin release helps to aid in the active release of carcinogenic fluid from the breast. Nipple stimulation and oxytocin release could be a factor relating to lower rates of breast cancer in women who breastfeed. I massage my breasts with this Breast Care Balm as often as I can, sometimes every day.
- Practice belly (and back and rib) breathing and develop a relationship with your relaxation response. This program is one I practiced and taught for more than a decade but there are many others. Find a restorative yoga class. You don't need to learn special yogic counting and breath retention as much as you need to re-learn the full body breathing that you were born with, and use it.
While I have focused primarily on the physical movements that we can do to support the health of the breasts, this is notably not a comprehensive list of preventative measures. Breast cancer is an estrogen dependent malignancy and I doubt that any amount of movement in the context of modern life can completely offset a lifestyle that doesn't take this into account. I'll do my best to explore this in greater depth in a future post.