Breast Cancer Prevention and Screening —Your First Defense
By: Asma Latif, MD, Board Certified Oncologist and Hematologist at Sturdy Hematology and Oncology Associates
The prevalence of breast cancer in our country is high. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), one out of eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, and while at first glance that may seem small, think about the women in your life. I am sure you can count more than eight of them, now imagine one of them receiving the devastating news that she has breast cancer.
As an oncologist who specializes in women’s cancer, I witness the journey of an entire family as their mother, sister, daughter, or wife battles breast cancer—it is emotional and very personal. No diagnosis is the same, and no treatment is the same. We stand beside these brave, courageous women as they undergo surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation to eradicate the cancer from their bodies. We share in their victories and comfort them through their struggles. And while treatment for breast cancer has evolved and continues to improve, we need to focus more on prevention.
Certain lifestyle choices may increase your risk for developing breast cancer.
We know that being overweight or obese can result in a number of different health conditions including heart disease and diabetes. It can also increase your risk for breast cancer, namely due to the estrogen that is produced in fat cells. Having more fat tissue in your body after menopause can increase the estrogen levels in your body and may increase your chance of developing breast cancer. To combat this, you should aim to stay at a healthy body weight throughout your life. Follow a healthy diet full of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and whole grains while including at least 150 minutes of physical activity throughout each week.
Drinking alcohol can increase your risk for breast cancer as well. The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that women who drink one alcoholic drink per day have a slight increased risk, while those who consume two to three drinks a day have a 20 percent higher risk compared to those who do not drink.
On the topic of lifestyle changes, if you smoke, it is time to quit. There are suggestions that smoking can increase your risk of breast cancer, and quitting the tobacco habit will improve your overall health as well.
Your reproductive health may play a bigger role than you think in relation to your risk of breast cancer. If you are planning to have children, the age you become pregnant may increase or decrease your chance of developing the disease. The ACS reports that women who become pregnant after the age of 30 have an increased risk, while women who have multiple pregnancies and become pregnant at a younger age, have a decreased risk of developing breast cancer. Choosing to breastfeed can play a role in prevention as well. This is believed to be due in part to the reduction of lifetime menstrual cycles.
As you approach menopause, know your options for the treatment of symptoms as there may be non-hormonal therapies that can provide you relief. Studies have shown that long term use of hormone replacement therapy may increase the risk of developing breast cancer. It is important to weigh the risks versus the benefits with your doctor.
There is no guaranteed prevention against breast cancer, but when it is found in its early stages, the cure rate can be as high as 90-95 percent, depending on the type of breast cancer. This is why screening is so important. As a woman, you should be familiar with your breasts, their shape, size, and what they feel like. If you begin to notice any changes, including tenderness, discharge, or lumps—call your doctor and ask to be seen. Keeping up to date with your annual physical ensures that you receive a clinical breast exam by your doctor who will examine the breasts to feel for any abnormalities. And while some guidelines for screening mammograms differ, many physicians recommend that women over the age of 40 begin having annual mammograms. It is important to discuss your personal risk factors for breast cancer with your doctor. Based upon your family history, environmental factors, and medical history, screening recommendations may be different.
It all comes down to being vigilant with your health. Every choice you make influences your body. When faced with day to day choices, make your health a priority. Commit to a healthy diet, get moving every day, schedule your annual physicals and set up screening appointments when they are needed. You can’t eliminate your risk entirely, but you can be proactive by changing habits that are known to increase your risk for the disease. Be supportive of the women in your life, empower them to reduce their risk and encourage them to schedule their screenings as well.