It is finally officially fall. Amid the fall colors of orange, yellow, and red you may also notice a lot of pink. Many people wear pink clothing or pink ribbons in October because October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. Breasts get their own month because breast cancer is the 2nd most common type of cancer diagnosis in women (skin cancer is the 1st) and it is the 2nd most common cause of cancer related death in women (lung cancer is the 1st).
Breast cancer touches us all. Most of us know and/or are related to at least one woman who has been given that dreaded diagnosis. Fortunately we also usually know one or more women who have lived through the diagnosis, treatment, and are survivors. I can think of at least 7 women that I know personally and several more professionally that have fought that fight.
As women we have a 12% chance of developing breast cancer in our lifetime. Those odds are 1 in 8. Put simply, if you went to lunch with seven of your closest girlfriends one of you at the table will eventually develop breast cancer. That is a grim way to think of those statistics but it is important to realize that all of us are at risk.
Risk factors for breast cancer that we do not have any control over include: age (our risk increases as we age), race (Caucasian women have the greatest risk), a family history of breast cancer, early age of menarche (first period before age 12), and late age of menopause (after age 55).
However, we are not powerless. Here are several choices we can make that will reduce our risk of developing breast cancer:
- Maintain a healthy weight. Women who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk for breast cancer especially if they are postmenopausal.
- Eat a healthy diet full of a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. If your diet is lacking fruits and vegetables taking a multivitamin to make up for missing nutrients is not the same. Also substituting these foods for processed foods will also help with losing and maintaining weight.
- Exercise regularly. Studies show that women who participate in moderate physical activity 4 or more hours per week have a lower risk of breast cancer.
- Have a child. I am not recommending that you choose to bear a child to lower your risk of breast cancer. However, those women who do become moms are at a lower risk than those women who do not ever have children.
- Breastfeed your baby. Choosing to breastfeed your baby is a win-win. You reduce your risk of breast cancer and the additional benefits to you and your infant are huge and too many to list here.
- Limit your alcohol intake. The risk of breast cancer increases proportionally to the number of alcoholic beverages you consume beyond one drink a day.
- Learn about your family’s health history. It may be awkward but talk to your grandmother about her breasts but genetics matter. Although we can’t alter genetics we can be proactive and take action. Science is wonderful and we have genetic testing that may be appropriate for SOME women who have a strong family history.
- Get yearly mammograms or thermography starting at age 40-50. The reason there is a range of ages is because there is some disagreement among the medical authorities as to when screening mammograms should begin for most women. I am a fan of age 40 especially if there is a family history of breast cancer but you should discuss this with your doctor to decide what is best for you.
- Get to know your breasts. When I was in medical school and in residency there was a movement on teaching women to do monthly self breast exams. That has since fallen out of favor due to lack of evidence that it saves lives. However, I am old school and I do think you should know what your own breasts feel like. That way if something feels different or wrong you will know and can get it checked out by a health care professional.
- Minimize length of menopausal hormone replacement therapy with combination products containing both estrogen and progesterone. This should be an individualized decision based on personal risk factors and done in conjunction with your physician.
So be an educated advocate for your own body. Not just for breast cancer prevention but for all things. Your body was God’s gift to you for this lifetime. Care for it. Respect it. Love it. It is the only one your will get. Teaching your children to do the same is invaluable.
So wear pink proudly and celebrate “the girls”!
For more detailed information about Breast Cancer and prevention check out the following resources.