Published on August 18, 2023
World Breast Cancer Research Day occurs annually on August 18. It’s a great opportunity to amplify the importance of breast cancer research, propelling forward our vision to one day live in a world where cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable for all. The Prevent Cancer Foundation is honored to support the research of promising early career scientists, many of whom have gone on to be leaders in cancer prevention and early detection. Cheng Peng, Sc.D., is one of those researchers.
An instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Peng’s breast cancer research examines how dietary prevention can play a role in reducing breast cancer risk, and ultimately prevent cancer.
We chatted with Dr. Peng to learn about her research, her “why,” and what we can all do to reduce the risk of breast cancer:
What drew you to breast cancer research?
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women. Approximately 1 in 8 women in the United States develops invasive breast cancer over her lifetime. Despite much effort put into cancer research, breast cancer incidence continues to increase at a steady rate. Identifying modifiable factors that reduce breast cancer risk and sharing those research findings with the public is of great importance to me.
During my career as a breast cancer epidemiologist, I met a unique group of young women who had family history of breast cancer and were actively learning ways to reduce their risk. Supported by the Prevent Cancer Foundation, we showed that women with a higher risk of breast cancer due to their genetics or increased breast density showed the largest risk reduction based on their intake of carotenoids. It is very rewarding to provide the scientific basis for integrating personal, actionable advice for women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer.
How does breast density and genetic makeup affect breast cancer risk?
Not every woman has an equal chance of developing breast cancer. Identifying people at high risk, reallocating preventive resources and designing tailored health management strategies for those who are at high risk are all critical components to breast cancer prevention. Mammographic density, which is reflected in breast tissue composition, is one of the strongest risk factors for breast cancer. Women with extremely dense breasts (greater than or equal to 75% of the breast) are at four to six times the risk of developing breast cancer compared to women with little or no dense tissue.
Women with genetic predispositions are also at a greater risk for developing breast cancer and some genetic mutations may carry a 2-20X higher risk for breast cancer as compared to the average woman. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends genetic testing in some at increased risk for breast cancer, including those with a significant family history of the disease. While most organizations, including the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and the American College of Radiology, recommend beginning breast cancer screening in women at average risk with annual mammography beginning at age 40, women felt to be at elevated risk due to increased breast density or genetic risk may need screening earlier (or at different intervals) and may benefit from supplemental imaging.
What are some dietary recommendations to reduce breast cancer risk?
Diet represents one of the few modifiable risk factors for primary cancer prevention. It’s been consistently shown that carotenoids—a family of naturally occurring compounds found in fruits and vegetables—may reduce the risk of breast cancer. Those associations were particularly evident for estrogen receptor negative tumors, an aggressive type of breast cancer with limited effective therapies. Alcohol consumption, both during early and later adulthood, is associated with elevated breast cancer risk, even at low levels of consumption. Because adolescence represents a time of rapid breast development and breast tissue differentiation, lifestyle choices that occur during this period may be more critical to the development of breast cancer. Eating less red meat and more fiber and fruit during adolescence has also been associated with reduced breast cancer risk.
*Note: The Prevent Cancer Foundation seeks to use language that is inclusive of all and avoid unnecessary expressions of sex or gender. However, text that is based on research findings which specify gender, for example, uses the language dictated by the research. Guest authors, including researchers, medical experts and cancer survivors, may use the language they utilize for their work or are most comfortable with for their personal story.