BREAST CANCER: Lower Your Risk – By: Mary Ellen Pratt, FACHE, CEO
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, except for skin cancers. In 2015, an estimated 231,840 women in the US will be diagnosed with breast cancer and over 40,000 will die from it. These are scary statistics, so it’s not surprising that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and every woman wants to know what she can do to lower her risk of breast cancer.
Some of the factors associated with breast cancer can’t be changed. Just being a woman is the biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer. As with many other diseases, your risk of breast cancer goes up as you get older. Women with close relatives who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease. If you’ve had one first-degree female relative (sister, mother, daughter) diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk is doubled. About 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, caused by abnormal genes passed from parent to child.
Being a woman, your age and your genetics can’t be controlled, but other factors—being overweight and eating unhealthy food, smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol and lack of exercise can be changed by making choices. By choosing the healthiest lifestyle options possible, you can empower yourself and make sure your breast cancer risk is as low as possible.
Diet is thought to be partly responsible for about 30% to 40% of all cancers. High-fat diets can lead to being overweight or obese, which is a breast cancer risk factor. Overweight women are thought to be at higher risk for breast cancer because the extra fat cells make estrogen, which can cause extra breast cell growth. This extra growth increases the risk of breast cancer. No food or diet can prevent you from getting breast cancer, but some foods can make your body the healthiest it can be, boost your immune system and help keep your risk for breast cancer as low as possible. Research has shown that getting the nutrients you need from a variety of foods, especially fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, can make you feel your best and give your body the energy it needs.
Smoking causes a number of diseases and is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in younger, premenopausal women. Research also has shown that there may be link between very heavy second-hand smoke exposure and breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women. Smoking also can increase complications from breast cancer treatment, including: damage to the lungs from radiation therapy, difficulty healing after surgery and breast reconstruction and higher risk of blood clots when taking hormonal therapy medicines. You can lower your risk of breast cancer if you don’t smoke and don’t start. If you do smoke, use every resource you can find to help you quit.
Research consistently shows that drinking alcoholic beverages—beer, wine, and liquor—increases a woman’s risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer. Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10% for each additional drink women regularly have each day. If you want to do everything you can to lower your breast cancer risk, limiting how much alcohol you drink makes sense. You may choose to stop drinking alcohol completely, but if you plan to continue drinking, try to have two or fewer alcoholic drinks per week.
Research shows a link between exercising regularly at a moderate or intense level for 4 to 7 hours per week and a lower risk of breast cancer. Exercise consumes and controls blood sugar and limits blood levels of insulin growth factor, a hormone that can affect how breast cells grow and behave. People who exercise regularly tend to be healthier and are more likely to maintain a healthy weight and have little or no excess fat compared to people who don’t exercise. Fat cells make estrogen and extra fat cells make extra estrogen. When breast cells are exposed to extra estrogen over time, the risk of developing breast cancer is higher.
By choosing a healthy lifestyle you can reduce your risk of breast cancer, but there are some risks of breast cancer we cannot control. For these risks, it is most important to have regular screening mammograms. It is recommended for women to start having screening mammograms at age 40. We know mammograms don’t prevent breast cancer, but they can save lives by finding breast cancer as early as possible. For example, mammograms have been shown to lower the risk of dying from breast cancer by 35% in women over the age of 50. Finding breast cancers early with mammography has also meant that many more women being treated for breast cancer are able to keep their breasts. When caught early, localized cancers can be removed without resorting to breast removal (mastectomy).
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