As you may have guessed from the pink merchandise flooding the stores, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. What you may not realize is that breast cancer is the second most common cancer for women in the United States, right behind skin cancer. Breast cancer research has resulted in the development of many new treatments that have saved countless lives. However, the best possible outcome would be learning how to prevent breast cancer from ever occurring in the first place.
! Fortunately, there are steps you can take toward preventing breast cancer in your own life. Studies have shown that certain lifestyle changes make a big impact and can decrease the risk of breast cancer even in women who are considered high-risk.
Breast cancer begins in the breast, but it can spread when cancer cells enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system and are transported to other parts of the body. Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic (or lymph) system, which carries lymph fluid through tissues and into the blood. The lymph fluid contains immune system cells, along with tissue by-products and waste materials. With breast cancer, cancer cells begin to grow in the lymph nodes around the breasts. These small glands are located under the arm, near the breastbone, and around the collar bone. When cancer spreads from the breast to the lymph nodes, there’s an increased risk that it will metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body.
What You Should Know About Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer VarietiesTypes of breast cancer are determined by the specific kind of cells that are affected. The most common breast cancers are carcinomas. Once a biopsy is done, the doctor will test the cells for proteins called estrogen or progesterone receptors, and for the HER2 gene or protein. At the same time, the tumor cells will be examined in the lab to determine the grade of tumor. Knowing the specific proteins and tumor grade is important for determining the stage of cancer and the best options for treatment.
Early Diagnosis Is CrucialCatching breast cancer early is an important part of successful treatment. That’s why it’s vital to check for lumps and changes to your breasts, have regular checkups, and get mammograms and other screenings when your doctor recommends it. The risk of breast cancer increases with age, and for women over 70, there’s a 1 in 24 chance of developing breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Treatments are highly individualized, and healthy, active, independent patients are most likely to experience a good outcome.
Lifestyle Changes Can HelpWhether your focus is the prevention of breast cancer, or you’ve already had a diagnosis and want the best possible outcome, a healthy lifestyle is a crucial component of good health, regardless of your age. Here are some steps you can take to live a healthier life
- Don’t smoke. Smoking doesn’t just raise your breast cancer risk; it increases the risk of at least 15 cancers! Additionally, smoking is linked to heart disease and stroke. One of the best things you can do for your overall health is to avoid smoking or quit if you’re already a smoker.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Research indicates that drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer, and the more you drink the higher your risk. Even small amounts can raise your risk, so stick to one drink or fewer per day.
- Be careful with hormonal treatments. Hormone therapy can increase the risk of breast cancer, particularly if it’s taken for more than three to five years. If you and your doctor decide that short-term hormone therapy is the best option for you, take the lowest dose of hormones that works for you. A common question is whether birth control pills have an impact on breast cancer risk. Before 1985, birth control pills had higher estrogen levels than they do now. This was linked to a slight increase in breast cancer risk, though that risk level returned to normal 10 years after discontinuing birth control. Today’s birth control pills have not been linked to an increased breast cancer risk.
- Women who breastfeed have a reduced risk of cancer. Breastfeeding a baby for at least one year can help lower the risk of breast cancer, and the longer you nurse, the higher the level of protection will be.
- Avoid radiation as much as possible. Make sure that you only get procedures involving radiation when it’s absolutely necessary, as these medical imaging tests have been linked to breast cancer.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight increases the risk of breast cancer and other medical issues. Obesity that happens after menopause is particularly significant for breast cancer risk. Staying at a healthy weight will not only reduce your risk of breast cancer but will also help your overall health.
- Stay active. Exercise is a great way to keep your weight in check, and research shows that women who walk 30 minutes each day have a reduced risk of breast cancer. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity are recommended each week, along with strength training twice a week.
- Eat a nutritious diet. Are there foods that prevent breast cancer? Not necessarily, but a diet full of nutrients can reduce your risk, and it also helps decrease the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The Mediterranean diet is an excellent example, focused on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, lean proteins, and healthy fats.