October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It is an important month, because the risk of breast cancer for a female is 12-13% over her lifetime. This is a big number! What can we do on a regular basis to reduce this risk and what can be done to screen for this cancer?
There are some risk factors we can do nothing about, such as being female, our age, family history and genetics. However, there are some things that we can do to help reduce these risks, such quitting smoking, decreasing alcohol consumption, eating nutritious foods, and limiting our exposure to harmful chemicals.
Drinking more than three alcoholic beverages per week (compared to non-drinkers), contributes to a 15% higher risk of breast cancer. This is due to alcohol causing an increase in the hormone estrogen. Estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive cancers develop and grow. Alcohol also can damage DNA in our cells. Smoking is also a risk factor we can modify. Exposure to heavy secondhand smoke can also increase the risk of breast cancer.
Having a BMI over 25 can increase the risk of breast cancer. This is because our fat cells make estrogen, so extra fat cells mean extra estrogen. Regular exercise of 4-7 hours per week at a moderate or intense level can also help lower your risk.
There is a lot of emerging information about what we put into and onto our bodies. Diet is thought to be 30-40% partly responsible for all cancers. Eat clean as much as you can. Clean eating is choosing real foods and minimally processed foods. A good rule for eating clean is not eating a food if you cannot pronounce the ingredients listed on the label — the fewer ingredients, the better. Eat plenty of fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and drink plenty of water. Limit added sugar, refined carbs, processed foods, trans fats, and processed meat. Try to limit red meat and try to reduce the amount of grilled and smoked meats you consume, as well. Trim off the char or burned parts of your grilled food. Reduce your risks of exposure to pesticides by buying organic when you can. “Eat Clean, Recharged,” by Tosca Reno is great book to get you started on clean eating.
Another way to limit chemicals in our daily lives is through our cosmetics and personal care products. They can contain parabens and phthalates which can penetrate our skin and act like estrogens or hormone disruptors.
Read your makeup and soap and shampoo labels and try to find brands free of parabens and phthalates.
Another potentially harmful hormone disruptor is BPA. BPA is found in plastics. To decrease BPA, drink out of a reusable glass, steel or ceramic water bottle; reduce consumption of canned food with BPA lining in the can; and do not heat your food in plastic containers or bags. The website breastcancer.org has a helpful guide regarding chemicals called, “Think Pink, Live Green.”
In addition to the things we can do every day, let’s discuss screening options. Screening is an important step, because it can detect a cancer at an earlier stage, and that makes it easier to treat and cure. Important options are self-exam, clinical breast exam by your healthcare provider, and imaging, such as a mammogram.
There is debate about the usefulness of monthly self-exams. If you do choose to do self-exams, make it a monthly habit. After your period is best, or if you are no longer having periods, pick a day and do your exam on that day each month. Breasts are lumpy and you will need to learn what is normal for your body. If you do find a new lump, stay calm and call your doctor to schedule an appointment. Clinical breast exams are done by your gynecologist or healthcare provider and are a common part of an annual preventative visit.
Another important tool we use to screen for breast cancer is the mammogram. It is like an X-ray of the breast. There is difference of opinion in the medical literature about when and how often one should have a screening mammogram. I usually recommend mammograms start at the age of 40 and continue while you are in good health. Some patients choose annual mammograms, and some choose every other year. There are lots of variations on these rules, so it is best to talk with your health care provider to put together a plan you are both comfortable with.
If you do not have insurance or you are under-insured, you may think you can’t afford an exam or mammogram. I don’t want this to stop you. Valley Health offers discounts like the Sliding Fee program, which can help pay for these types of exams and visits. If you qualify, a mammogram is often able to be scheduled free of charge to you. Our local hospitals also have programs that can help get these mammograms paid for. We want our community to be healthy!