Breast Cancer is a common disease, affecting approximately 1 in 8 women over a lifetime. Men are also affected, at a rate of approximately 1 in 100. All women should have an awareness of the changes that occur in their breasts, and should undergo routine evaluation and imaging (such as mammogram, ultrasound, or MRI if appropriate) at recommended intervals. Men should perform periodic breast self examinations and men and women should report any changes to their physician.
As a breast surgeon, I focus not only on the treatment of disease, but on prevention as well. While having a family history of breast cancer increases your risk, all women are at risk. With the exception of women who test positive for a BRCA gene mutation, it is not currently possible to say exactly why breast cancer developed. However, we are becoming more aware of the effects of lifestyle and environmental influences on the development of cancer as well as other diseases. A healthy lifestyle does not equal prevention in all cases, but here are some facts regarding breast cancer:
- Postmenopausal women who are overweight have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, and if they’ve been treated for breast cancer, their risk of recurrence is increased if they are overweight
- Moderate exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer development as well as the risk of recurrent disease
- A high fat diet has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer
- More than 3-6 alcoholic drinks per week (in women) is associated with an increasing risk of breast cancer
- Exposure to some environmental toxins, such as BPA, has been linked to breast cancer development in laboratory animals. The link between breast cancer and various chemicals is the subject of intense research and there are many conflicting studies. Until we have firm data however, it does seem prudent to limit your exposure to toxic chemicals whenever possible.
Remember that it is possible to do everything “right” and still develop breast cancer. The reality is that breast cancer and many other diseases are caused and exacerbated by multiple factors – this is why studies evaluating methods of prevention are so difficult. And it’s also why the studies that pop up every so often regarding the benefits of a particular nutrient or extract need to be placed in proper perspective – it’s usually not as simple as one nutrient or extract.
My recommendation for all of my patients, not just those with breast cancer, is to simply take good care of yourself. As we age (and we’re all getting older!), our bodies become less tolerant of the effects of lack of sleep, heavy alcohol intake, and the dietary habits that we had when we were in our teens and 20′s. Our bodies have changed, and we have to change our habits if we want to try to stay healthy. Here are some recommendations:
- Low fat (not no fat!!) diet – focus on the healthy fats such as olive oil, salmon, walnuts, and avocado
- Plant-based diet – focus on lots of greens and veggies of all colors, as well as fruits. You may feel it’s easier to take your fruits and veggies in pill form, but while you may be getting some of the vitamins and extracts, the way the real foods interact is very complex (cancer development is a similarly complex process) and cannot be replicated in a pill. Trace nutrients that we may not even know about will also be missing, as well as fiber, not to mention the wonderful taste of properly prepared, fresh, real food! A periodic splurge is also fine – life is too short to go without chocolate -just make it is good quality, dark if possible. With the exception of low-fat, there is no one particular diet felt to reduce the risk of cancer development.
- Animal protein is ok, just consider the source and eat in moderation
- Don’t forget non-animal sources of protein such as legumes and quinoa
- Moderation in alcohol intake – 3-6 drinks per week (and no, you can’t save up your week’s “allowance” for Friday night…)
- Moderate exercise – it’s ok if you can’t do you spinning class like you did 10 years ago – a good 20-30 minute walk once a day is fine. If you need that endorphin rush of strenuous activity, make sure to balance it with some more meditative exercise such as yoga or pilates
- Proper sleep – we all need 7-9 hours a night, period. Our bodies repair themselves during sleep, and you can’t just “catch up” on the weekends. Those that catch me on-line after 10pm pacific time – feel free to call me out on this one!
- Meditation / Reflection – it is so very important to take some time each day to reflect on what is good in your life – having a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the good things will help make it easier to get through the tough times. This can be as formal or informal as you want, it’s just important to fit this in somewhere.
This is meant to provide you with some thoughts and a framework for getting started, and I welcome comments and suggestions from others on these points. Just remember that you’re not doing this specifically for breast cancer prevention – these are steps to make you a healthier and happier person.
By, Deanna J Attai