Breast Cancer Awareness Neglects A Key Factor For Prevention

dt_150728_breast_cancer_tumor_800x600By Dr. Dennis Clark

The breast cancer awareness movement continues to miss out on what may be the single most important factor for preventing breast cancer: sunshine.

Sunshine is not even included in the list of factors currently under study, according to the Susan B. Komen Foundation.

Nevertheless, the potential role of sunshine for reducing the incidence of breast cancer has been known for decades. That’s not all. Sunshine plays an important role in reducing other kinds of cancer as well.


In 1990, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, showed that the risk of fatal breast cancer in the U.S. followed a north-south gradient. Northern areas (New York, Chicago) were associated with up to a 1.8-fold higher rate of mortality in comparison with southern areas (Phoenix, Honolulu).

Lower mortality corresponded to higher levels of sunlight.

The same research group immediately followed up with a similar study of breast cancer incidence in the former Soviet Union. Results showed the same trend as in the U.S.

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The survey expanded worldwide in 2005 to compare the incidence of breast cancer in 175 countries relative to their distance from the equator. In the northern hemisphere, the highest cancer rates were found in Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Canada. These countries are all located above 60º North latitude.

In contrast, the lowest incidences of breast cancer occurred in countries within 20º North or South latitude. This list included Haiti, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Malawi.

Taking a slightly different angle, a study in 2014 found that breast cancer patients had an improved chance of survival when diagnosed in summer versus winter.


The most frequent explanation for such patterns points to vitamin D as the main factor. Average levels of vitamin D trend lower as latitude increases. This trend reflects lower levels of UV-B light. Vitamin D synthesis can only occur in skin when it is exposed to UV-B light.

Blood levels of vitamin D correspond to reduced incidences of breast cancer.

The vitamin D hypothesis derives support from many studies that correlate higher plasma levels of vitamin D with reduced rates of cancer. A research study published in 2016 in JAMA Oncology, for example, showed significant associations between higher vitamin D levels and lower risks of breast cancer morbidity and mortality.

Does this mean that supplementing with vitamin D can reduce the risk of breast cancer?

Getting a clear answer to this question has been unsatisfying. Studies on the benefits of vitamin D supplements have been contradictory in regard to cancer. Some show reduced incidences and others do not.

Such confusion rests on a failure to distinguish between vitamin D made in skin versus vitamin D taken orally, either in food or as supplements. They are significantly different from one another.


First of all, vitamin D is not a vitamin so much as it is a hormone. It is made from another hormone that occurs in skin, cholesterol. During this biosynthetic process, both hormones become bound to a sulfur-oxygen group called a sulfate.

This is the part of the process that requires UV-B light.

Vitamin D from food or supplements is not sulfated. Furthermore, the human body cannot add sulfate to unsulfated dietary vitamin D.

The bottom line is that the biologically active form of vitamin D – i.e., vitamin D sulfate – is only available when we make it from cholesterol in our skin in the presence of UV-B light.

The exception is vitamin D sulfate that occurs in mother’s milk, including non-pasteurized cow’s milk.

Oral vitamin D, either from food or from supplements, is still important for regulating where calcium goes in our bodies. As such, it provides well-known benefits for bone health.

When it comes to reducing the risks of breast cancer, however, the key form of the hormone is vitamin D sulfate.


Scientists searching for the risk factors associated with breast cancer have proposed a dizzying array of possibilities. The availability of sunshine, based on latitude or on the season, is just one of them. Latitudinal gradients and time of year do not, however, predict how much sunshine people are actually getting on their skin.

Women living in sunny climates undermine the potential benefits of vitamin D sulfate by staying mostly indoors, by covering their skin when outdoors, or by wearing sunscreen. In sunny Qatar, for example, women who fully cover themselves for religious reasons have very low levels of vitamin D. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in Qatar.

Studies since the 1990s clearly establish an association between sunshine and breast cancer. However, a full scientific understanding of this relationship is lacking. It is a major gap in cancer research.

Filling this gap is the specialty of Dr. Stephanie Seneff of MIT. Her research entails vitamin D metabolism and health. According to Dr. Seneff, vitamin D sulfate is a key hormone for protection against cancer, for a stronger immune system, for better cardiovascular health, and for optimal brain function.

In other words, the benefits attributed to vitamin D are really due to vitamin D sulfate.


As Dr. Seneff points out, the key ingredients for making vitamin D sulfate are cholesterol, sulfur, and UV-B light. That’s all it takes.

Having enough of each ingredient is crucial for optimizing the amount of vitamin D sulfate that you can make.

Cholesterol. This hormone is not the health bugaboo that mainstream medicine makes it out to be. We absolutely must have sufficient amounts of cholesterol for optimal health. It is the key precursor that we need for making vitamin D sulfate.

It should be no surprise that taking cholesterol-lowering drugs leads to a greater association with many kinds of cancer.

Your body already makes most of the cholesterol that you need for good health. You can also benefit from consuming cholesterol-containing foods such as eggs, liver, shellfish, red meat, and cheese.

If you are worried about cholesterol as a health problem, you can find out the real truth behind this made-up issue in Malcolm Kendrick’s book, The Great Cholesterol Con: The Truth About What Really Causes Heart Disease and How to Avoid It.

Sulfur. Dietary sulfur most commonly comes from the two sulfur-containing amino acids in all proteins, methionine and cysteine. High sulfur-containing foods also include cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, turnips), allium vegetables (garlic, onions, leeks, chives), and eggs.

One of the simplest ways to get plenty of dietary sulfur is to supplement with methyl sulfonyl methane (MSM). It is a widely available and inexpensive supplement. You can get all the sulfur you need from a daily teaspoon of MSM powder dissolved in a glass of water.

UV-B Light. As with fears about cholesterol, mainstream medicine has also perpetrated a scary dogma about ultraviolet light and skin cancer. Unfortunately, this dogma contradicts basic human biology. Your skin must be exposed to UV-B light to make vitamin D sulfate.

There is no better source of UV-B light than sunshine.

Getting enough UV-B light on your skin, however, can be tricky. In winter, the amount of UV-B light reaching the Earth’s surface beyond 40 degrees north or south latitude is too low to make enough vitamin D sulfate. Safe tanning beds or UV-B lamps can be helpful.

Getting enough exposure to UV-B light in summer is less of a problem. The highest levels occur between about 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM.

The amount that each person needs depends on several factors. Lighter skin requires less than darker skin. The best indicator for getting the right amount of exposure is a change in skin color to pinkish. The key is to stop at that point to avoid sunburn.


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Seneff S, Davidson RM, Lauritzen A, Samsel A, Wainwright G. 2015. A novel hypothesis for atherosclerosis as a cholesterol sulfate deficiency syndrome. Theor Biol Med Model. May 27;12:9.

Weller RB. 2016. The health benefits of UV radiation exposure through vitamin D production or non-vitamin D pathways. Blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Photochem Photobiol Sci. Dec 23. [Epub ahead of print]

Yao S, Kwan ML, Ergas IJ, Roh JM, Cheng TD, Hong CC, McCann SE, Tang L, Davis W, Liu S, Quesenberry CP Jr, Lee MM, Ambrosone CB, Kushi LH. 2016. Association of serum level of vitamin D at diagnosis with breast cancer survivial: A case-cohort analysis in the Pathways Study.  JAMA Oncol. Nov 10. [Epub ahead of print]

Dr. Dennis Clark is a research scientist and retired university professor who loves to teach others how to get and stay healthy naturally. Keep your health on track with his free booklet, How to Increase Longevity with Optimal Health and Fitness in Spite of Modern Medicine.

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