Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce breast cancer risk

As the Mayo Clinic explained, omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients, found in spades in foods like flaxseed, leafy vegetables, nuts and fish. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explained there should be extra emphasis on the essential part. That's because omega-3 fats are vital for the health of cells and can lower your risk of strike, heart disease, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Now, research suggests these acids may have another use: reducing the risk of breast cancer in obese women.

Fighting back against tumors
That revelation comes courtesy of a new study published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research. The project was organized by Dr. Andrea Manni, the division chief of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at Penn College of Medicine. For the study, Mann and her teamed worked alongside a pool of 266 postmenopausal women, each of whom had high breast density (25 percent or greater) and were either of normal weight or some level of obese. Researchers were most interested in charting the change in breast density over a two-year span; according to the National Cancer Institute, women with denser breasts have a four to six times greater risk of developing tumors.

During the trial, the women were divided up into five groups: two received an anti-estrogen drug called Raloxifene, one received the omega-3 drug Lovaza, a fourth received a combination of the two prescriptions and the fifth served as a control group. At the end of the trial, the researchers found that in the 20 percent of participants who were obese, increasing the omega-3 levels helped reduce overall breast density. The team noted that docosahexaenoic acid was the most effective of the omega-3 acids, which makes sense given the other extensive uses of DHA. According to the University of Maryland Medical center, DHA us used in treatments for depression, ADHD, Raynaud Syndrome and menstrual pain.

"The finding supports the idea that omega-3s, and specifically DHA, are preferentially protective in obese postmenopausal women," Dr. Manni wrote. "This represents an example of a personalized approach to breast cancer prevention."

Issues with classification 
The study from the Penn College team comes at a rather interesting time. In January 2016, a group of researchers published a review in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicating that many women were experiencing misdiagnoses of their breast density. In fact, nearly 19 percent of women in that review were found to have been given the wrong breast density ratings. In fact, one study that the research team reviewed found that 22 percent of women were given different classifications on two consecutive mammograms. Understanding density is an important part of diagnosing breast cancer, and changing classifications can cause needless, potentially harmful delays in treatment. UC Davis professor Joy Melnikow was first author on the study, and she said in a statement that the results demonstrate a need for better density measurement protocols.

"It is important to be clear who actually has dense breasts," she said. "Also, when patients are told their breasts are either dense or not dense, they need to have confidence in that assessment. It is important that policies come from the evidence. It is also important that women not overreact to information about their breast density."

At the same time, preventing more cases of breast cancer would mean less needless spending on drugs. As the New York Times reported, Medicare ends up spending $3 billion annually on cancer drugs that are eventually thrown out. That's because many drugs are only available in larger, one-size-fits-all options, and leftover doses are never preserved. A study in the BMJ explained that the loss is a relatively easy problem to address. By offering smaller quantities, doctors and nurses would use all of a prescription and thus reduce needless waste.