Viewpoint: Conflicting headlines are confusing patients about breast cancer risks

Over 40% of women do not feel they have a good understanding of the breast cancer risk factors and media reports often oversimplify the impact of diet, which causes confusion, argues GP and Meat Advisory Panel member Dr Gill Jenkins.

Dr Gill Jenkins
Dr Gill Jenkins

Over 55,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, making it the most common cancer in the UK.1

Despite affecting so many lives, recent polling shows that over 40% women do not feel they have a good understanding of the risk factors that contribute to the development of breast cancer, with over 10% believing that the consumption of certain foods such as red meat is a main risk factor. This is only slightly less than the 14% who believe that age is a main risk factor, despite this being a key concern when it comes to breast cancer diagnosis.2

Meat Advisory Panel

The Meat Advisory Panel is a group of healthcare professionals and researchers who provide impartial information about red meat and its role as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

This article is funded by the Meat Advisory Panel for GP Connect

Recent headlines claiming that ‘eating burgers and sausages’ causes breast cancer, only add to this confusion.

These media claims – based on a report exploring links between processed red meat and breast cancer  – state that there is a 9% increased risk of breast cancer in women who eat a high level of processed red meat, compared to those who rarely eat it.3 Whilst I always advise that people eat within the recommended limit of 500g cooked red and processed meat per week,4 the report oversimplifies factors such as diet, and ignores age as one the biggest risk factors of breast cancer in women.5

Media claims

These claims aren’t limited to red meat. Earlier in the year media reported on research that claimed soy beans, cereals and lentils contain estrogen-like compounds that counteract the effects of a common breast cancer therapy.6 The contradictory reporting leaves patients confused and worried about what they should and shouldn’t be eating.

Focusing on singular food items causes unnecessary concern for patients and takes the focus away from the core risks of breast cancer, which are primarily linked to age, genetics, weight and lifestyle choices such as smoking.7

Additionally, this tunnel vision approach can lead to unintended consequences. For example, red meat is a great source of iron, and limiting the consumption could lead to iron deficiencies, which is already a significant issue affecting young women and girls.8

As GPs, it is our job to advise our patients on breast cancer risks in simple and clear terms. I advise my patients to stop smoking, reduce alcohol intake and try to maintain a healthy weight. Most importantly, we need to ensure that our patients are comfortable with self-examinations and that breast screening facilities are made available for at-risk groups.1

  • Dr Gill Jenkins is a practising GP and a member of the Meat Advisory Panel

References

  1. Cancer Research. Breast cancer statistics
  2.  Onepoll. Online survey of 2,000 adults. Conducted February 2019
  3. Farvid, M. et al. Consumption of red and processed meat and breast cancer incidence: A systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies, Int J Cancer 2018; 143(11) 2,787-99.  
  4. Public Health England. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SCAN) Iron and Health Report. February 2011. Last accessed: March 2019.
  5. Breast Cancer Now. Breast cancer facts 
  6. Warth et al. Metabolomics Reveals that Dietary Xenoestrogens Alter Cellular Metabolism Induced by Palbociclib/Letrozole Combination Cancer Therapy. Cell Chem Biol 2018; 25(3): 291-300  
  7. Breast Cancer Now. What can cause breast cancer? Last accessed March 2019
  8. National Diet and Nutrition Survey.  Results from Years 7&8 (combined) of the rolling programme (2014/2015 to 2015/2016). Public Health England, 2018.

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