Prof JusAP 1tus Apffelstaedt – There have been several studies into the link between breast cancer survival and the ‘sunshine vitamin’ – vitamin D.
Although it is too early to refer to vitamin D as a new weapon in our arsenal, the association has created much interest and indeed, may lead to important new discoveries.
Published in the Anticancer Research Journal earlier this year, a study by the University of California’s San Diego School of Medicine showed that breast cancer patients with optimal levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D in their blood had an approximate 50% lower fatality rate.
This study was inspired by a 2011 study that showed that low vitamin D levels were linked to a higher risk of premenopausal breast cancer. It was these findings that prompted the researchers to question the link between vitamin D and breast cancer.
The researchers believe the reason vitamin D decreases the fatality rate in breast cancer patients is that it increases communication between cells by activating a protein that stops aggressive cell division. Their thinking is that Vitamin D receptors prevent tumor growth by not allowing the tumor’s blood supply to expand.
The 2014 study followed 4 443 breast cancer patients for an average of nine years. It divided the women into groups – those with ‘high’ levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D were recorded as 30ng/ml while the lower levels were listed as around 17ng/ml.
While clinical trials must be conducted to confirm the findings, the researchers have taken the fairly conclusive route of suggesting that doctors consider adding vitamin D into the monitored treatment regime of breast cancer patients.
So what exactly is vitamin D, where can it be found, how do we ensure we have enough and how do we increase our intake?
Vitamin D is essential to the healthy function of our bodies. It helps regulate the absorption of calcium in our bones, strengthens the immune system and aids in cell communication. Vitamin D2 and D3 are the most important for our bodies, and Vitamin D3 is what we get from natural exposure to the sun.
It’s important to note that just getting your dose from sun exposure can be complicated and unreliable, but relying just on diet is also tricky. So the best option is a combination of the two.
A simple blood test will give you an accurate understanding of what your vitamin D level is, and when you get your results, make sure your doctor knows that you are looking for an optimal level not just a normal one.
Vitamin D is the only vitamin the human body can produce itself, which it does when you expose your skin to the sun. Living in sunny Namibia, we don’t often supplement for vitamin D, but if your blood test shows you are sitting on the low end of the spectrum, it may be worth including a vitamin D3 supplement in your daily routine.
Foods that contain vitamin D are fatty fish, beef liver, egg yolks and fortified foods like certain cereals and drinks.
These recent developments in the fight against breast cancer mean that women have one more tool in their arsenal. Prevention is better than cure, so with a doctor’s consent and empowered with accurate information about your own vitamin D levels it makes sense to actively pursue optimal levels of the wonderful ‘sunshine’ vitamin.
•• Prof Justus Apffelstaedt is the Head of the Breast Clinic: Tygerberg Hospital and Associate Professor: University of Stellenbosch. He visits the Paramount Healthcare Centre in Windhoek on a rotational basis.