Risks of High-Fat Dairy, Radiation – What They Mean For You

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Breast cancer research has been in the spotlight this week, with two new studies offering insight to survivors trying to lower their risk of death from cancer, and to protect themselves against long-term cardiac issues. Let’s cut to the chase – what do these studies mean to you?


    You’re a survivor. You’ve walked the walk, and it’s a journey you don’t want to repeat.


    You’ve undergone surgery, radiation, chemo, drugs and, just as lasting, the emotional scars that seem to take forever to heal.


    You’re not going back there if you can possibly help it – right? And you certainly don’t want to have to deal with another big gorilla in the corner – heart problems. With that in mind, two studies released this week offer news you can use.

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    The first, printed in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, shows a connection between the consumption of high-fat dairy products and an increased risk of breast cancer death.


    Let’s look at the particulars. The study, involving about 1,900 American women diagnosed with early-stage, invasive breast cancer between 1997-2000, traces the dairy consumption of those women for 12 years. Women who consumed one or more servings per day of high-fat dairy products during that time were 49% more likely to die of breast cancer; and 64% more likely to die of any cause, compared to women who limited their intake of high-fat dairy to less than one serving per day.


    Researchers theorize the increased death risk among the high-fat dairy group may come from increased exposure to the hormone estrogen. It’s known that as a woman’s exposure to estrogen increases, for whatever reason, her risk of breast cancer increases as well. Cow’s milk includes estrogen; and the higher the fat content, the higher the hormone concentration.


    What qualifies as high-fat dairy? Any dairy product made with whole milk. Think full-fat versions of milk, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream, cottage cheese, cheese, butter, that full-fat latte… you get the picture. If it’s made with milk and doesn’t say “reduced fat” or “nonfat,” then it’s considered high-fat. 


    Takeaway: If you’re a survivor trying to stay alive; and you regularly eat dairy products, try to limit yourself to reduced-fat or nonfat versions. Skim milk, nonfat yogurt, lower-fat cheese and sour cream and cottage cheese – even ice cream – are all eminently palatable, in my opinion. The occasional wedge of Brie isn’t likely to kill you; but don’t make a habit of sloshing “real” cream into your coffee every day either, OK?


    The second study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, focuses on radiation treatment for breast cancer, and its relation to subsequent cardiac issues. 


    The majority of American breast cancer survivors have radiation as part of their therapy. Almost every woman having breast conservation surgery (lumpectomy) for breast cancer undergoes radiation to the chest; many women having a mastectomy also have radiation, if cancer has invaded the chest wall or underarm.  


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    Thus it’s important that survivors realize their risk of serious heart problems – a heart attack or coronary blockage – is 26% to 79% higher (depending on the heart’s exposure to radiation) than it is for women who’ve never had radiation. This increased risk begins within several years of treatment, and continues for at least 20 years – possibly longer.


    Women whose radiation is on the left side experience a greater incidence of heart problems; and the risk also increases with the amount of radiation received. 


    The good news is, the risk of cardiac problems for women, even those who’ve had radiation, is still very low. A 50-year-old woman with no known cardiovascular risk factors has a 1.9% chance of dying of heart disease by the time she’s 80; for those who’ve received radiation, the risk increases to just 2.4% to 3.4%. (Grady, 2013) 


    Your takeaway? If you have other risk factors for heart problems (being overweight, family history, an unhealthy diet, smoking), understand that your risk may be greater than you thought; make sure your GP knows you’ve had radiation, and be assiduous about monitoring blood pressure, cholesterol, and other markers that can point to heart disease.


    If you’re not at any known risk, be aware that your exposure to radiation nudges you up just a bit past average. A healthy lifestyle will help keep your heart healthy.


    Oh, and one final thought: don’t even consider skipping radiation because it increases your risk of cardiac issues. The benefit it has in preventing breast cancer recurrence far outweighs any increased risk of heart attack you may experience.




    Colliver, V. (2013, March 14). Fatty dairy foods linked to early cancer death. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Fatty-foods-linked-to-early-cancer-death-4355398.php 


    Doheny, K. (2013, March 14). High-fat dairy foods linked to worse survival after breast cancer. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/news/articles/2013/03/14/high-fat-dairy-foods-linked-to-worse-survival-after-breast-cancer


    Grady, D. (2013, March 14). Radiation raises women’s risk of heart disease only slightly, study finds. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/health/radiation-modestly-raises-womens-heart-risks-study-says.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0


    High-fat dairy products linked to poorer breast cancer survival. (2013, March 14). Retrieved from http://medicalxpress.com/news/2013-03-high-fat-dairy-products-linked-poorer.html



Published On: March 15, 2013