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Breast cancer and vitamin D: What you need to know

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By Jimmy Downs

Breast cancer incidence and mortality

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 230,000 women in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, and the disease is expected to kill about 37,000 in the same year and the same country.   One in every eight women in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.

Ways to prevent breast cancer

Vitamin D is not the only preventative you can use to prevent breast cancer.  In fact, there are risk factors they should try to avoid and other preventatives they can take advantage of to further reduce their risk.

According to an authoritative organization, two major risk factors, which are absolutely certainly to increase risk of breast cancer, are medical radiation, which is recognized as a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program, and hormone replacement therapy.  Ironically, medical radiation as a carcinogen is often used to treat cancer.

Other risk factors include high lifetime exposure to estrogen including endogenous estrogen and orally taken estrogen, high intake of meat and dairy products, which promote the production of estrogen, alcohol consumption, having not given birth or giving birth at an old age, doing a night shift job, and avoiding sunlight exposure.

Levels of serum vitamin D that should be maintained to reduce breast cancer risk

Research shows that serum vitamin D (25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D]) concentrations greater than 40 ng/mL  or 100 nmol/L are associated with 30 percent reduced risk of breast cancer.

Observational studies show that breast cancer risk drops quickly when serum vitamin D concentrations at the diagnosis of breast cancer or up to three years later increase from lower than 10 ng/mL (25nmol/L) to 20 to 30 ng/mL.  And the risk continues to decrease at a slower rate as the serum vitamin D concentration further increases until about 50 ng/mL (150nmol/L).

When serum vitamin D reaches greater than 40 ng/mL (100nmol/L), the risk of breast cancer drops 30 percent, compared to vitamin D levels at lower than 20 ng/mL (50nmol/L).

How does vitamin D prevent breast cancer?

Vitamin D, often referring to vitamin D3, cholecalciferol, is not an active form of the vitamin.   What is active against breast cancer and other diseases is calcitriol, which is produced in the kidney from calcidiol, which is produced in the liver from vitamin D3, which can be obtained by exposure to the sun or taking vitamin D3 supplements.  Clacitriol is the most potent form of vitamin D.   People with impaired liver and kidneys are potentially at risk of vitamin D deficiency and a range of chronic diseases associated with vitamin D deficiency.

Calcitriol may facilitate apoptosis of cancerous cells, which would otherwise not die.  The hormone can also limit blood supply to the tumor and inhibit the spreading of breast cancer.

Breast cancer prevention by maintaining a high level of vitamin D

Most of studies associated high levels of plasma vitamin D with lower risk of breast cancer.  To maintain a high level of vitamin D, one can either expose himself to the sun often or take high doses of vitamin D supplements or do both.

Breast cancer treatment by taking vitamin D supplements

Vitamin D has not been used to treat breast cancer,  probably because a high dose of this vitamin being taken for long can lead to the development of high calcium in the blood.   Another reason for not using vitamin D to treat breast cancer is because it is not a prescription. It would get a physician into trouble if he uses a supplement to treat any disease.

The efficacy against breast cancer should be promising as many drug companies and academic organizations are engaged in developing vitamin D analogs that can deliver the same or better efficacy at a high dose with minimal side effects such as high calcium.  The fact that many companies are developing vitamin D analogs indicates that vitamin D is an effective anti-cancer agent.

Vitamin D has the potential to be used to treat breast cancer.  A study conducted in Canada shows that women with greater than 30 ng/mL (75 nmol/L) at the time of breast cancer diagnosis are 50 percent less likely to die from all causes during a 12-year follow-up, compared to those with lower than 10 ng/mL (25 nmol/L).

Another study led by researchers in Norway shows that women diagnosed with breast cancer in summer have a better chance to have a 2-year survival, compared to those who were diagnosed in winter.  People tend to have high levels of serum vitamin D in summer. The study suggests that vitamin D may play a role in the mortality.

Although vitamin D has never been used as a first line medication to treat breast cancer, many physicians recommend their cancer patients to have at least 5000 IU (125 mcg per day) vitamin D.

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