Soy Beans, Breast Cancer and Man Boobs

February 19, 2020

A man with breast cancer looks at diet, data and breast density in relation to how he got his cancer.

I want to begin this story by blaming everything on my father. Well, perhaps not everything. He was a big man, six and a half feet tall, while I was called "shorty" throughout my elementary school days until something magical sparked my metabolism and I ended up at a respectable five feet and seven inches.

I didn't inherit his height, but I definitely received his so called "man boobs". In fact, all of the males in my family, while not overweight, had a penchant for collecting a little extra fat in our pectorals.

After I was diagnosed with male breast cancer and had my left breast removed at the age of sixty-four, I had no concerns about the occasional teasing I got from the single conspicuous bump on my tee shirts. In fact, I felt lucky to have one breast remaining.

I even referred to myself as the "Uni-breast" man among friends, with deep reverence of course for those of us with the disease, since I see nothing funny about cancer of any kind, but I do find humor in the nuttiness of life. But there's more to this story, and it has to do with those folks around us who are quick to offer well-intentioned but ill-informed advice that so many of us who have cancer often receive from so many who don't. I can't count how many times I've been told that eating soy products or sugar caused my cancer.

I have been what I call a "mostly vegetarian" for the last twenty years, focusing my diet on brown rice, vegetables, tofu, soymilk, beans of all kinds and good fish whenever it's available and affordable. As a man who writes about cancer, I feel it's necessary to offer a full disclosure of my culinary indiscretions so, yes, I do eat ice cream more often than I should.

But there is a persistent story that has been going around for years, that eating faux meat made from soy, drinking soymilk or too much tofu will lead to "Man Boobs" and even worse, will set you up for a certain death from cancer.

I don't have a driving need to convince anybody about anything with regard to cancer, though I have it, research it, write about it and care about it, but here is some truth I want to share, backed up by peer-reviewed studies that have gone on for years. Soy products did not give me breast cancer or man boobs — and I can't blame my breast cancer on sugar either.

You may not be surprised to know that a number of meat and dairy industry devotees are perpetuating the misinformation, and even in the face of reliable peer-reviewed reporting, the myth continues to infiltrate the sources of fake news.

Because natural soy foods contain isoflavones, similar to estrogen, some people fear that soy may raise their risk for certain cancers. This is because estrogen is linked to hormonally sensitive cancers, like breast cancer.

However, according to the American Cancer Society, when it comes to soy, isoflavones may act like estrogen, but they have anti-estrogen properties as well. Some studies even show that a diet high in soy doesn't increase the chances of developing breast cancer but may even reduce that risk.

The current research does not support avoiding whole soy foods, even for cancer patients or survivors, and in defense of our so-called "Man Boobs", in a 2010 review of the medical evidence, researchers wrote that "isoflavones do not exert feminizing effects on men," at least not when consumed at levels typical of many soy-heavy Asian diets.

And one final note of interest, since we're talking about breast cancer cause and effect. Sugar doesn't make cancer grow faster. According to another Mayo Clinic report, "All cells, including cancer cells, depend on blood sugar (glucose) for energy. But giving more sugar to cancer cells doesn't speed their growth. Likewise, depriving cancer cells of sugar doesn't slow their growth.”

I should note that there is some evidence that consuming large amounts of sugar is associated with an increased risk for certain cancers and can also lead to weight gain that increases the risk of obesity and diabetes, which may increase the risk of cancer — and well, possibly man boobs.

So, there you have it. In the end, I guess I really only have my Dad to blame, or his DNA at any rate, for those few ounces of pectoral fat that have followed me around for most of my life. But I inherited his hair too, most of which I still have as I near the age of 70. So overall, the tradeoff seems like a pretty good deal to me.


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