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5 ways to change your breast cancer risk

I started On Wednesdays We Wear PINK in October because it’s such a special month for me. It also happens to be breast cancer awareness month. To kick off the series of Instagram Live sessions, I chatted about breast cancer and was joined by Dr Chase-St. Hill who shared the medical side of things. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap of what affects your risk of breast cancer.

What is breast cancer and who does it affect?

The biological cross-section showing the  structure of human breasts.  Breast cancer develops in thw lobes and ducts.
Cross-section of a breast

Breast cancer is a disease where the cells in the breasts, typically in the ducts and lobes, grow out of control and mutate. Breast cancer affected 2.3 million women globally in 2020 alone; with 189 newly diagnosed cases reported in Barbados and 55,920 cases in the United Kingdom. It is one of the most common cancers in women. But early detection campaigns and advances to healthcare have reduced the number of deaths from breast cancer. I know that sounds pretty frightening but there is hope!

The survival rate for breast cancer is around 80-90%, with the highest rates seen in developed countries where there is better access to support. As breast cancer is more widely known and researched, access to treatment and detection methods are increasing. Breast cancer can also affect men but is a lot rarer. So ladies and gents, what can we do to decrease our risk of breast cancer?

4 adults standing together happily as they get food for a BBQ. The risk of breast cancer is 1 in 8 for American women according to SEER Cancer Statistics Review submitted in 2019.
There is a 1 in 8 risk of a woman developing breast cancer at any point in her life.

Firstly, let’s look at the risk factors that we cannot change. And why you may ask?

Well, there is a lot of information about specific foods, diets, detoxes, and other questionably marketed products directed at persons with a family history of breast cancer, or persons living with cancer. Causing them to spend thousands of dollars on untested remedies which may be anecdotal or even a placebo. Complementary medicine could be helpful, but we also should be aware of the scientific evidence. Not to mention, each cancer will be a bit different, as mentioned by Dr Chase-St. Hill. Treatment options from your multidisciplinary medical team will also vary from person to person.

Don't play games with your health- Check your tatas (breasts) by doing regular self-exams 7-10 days after your period starts.

Things we cannot change

  1. Our age – being over 50 and the onset of menopause.
  2. Genetic mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, along with a family history of breast cancer in first degree relatives like your mother, sister or daughter.
  3. Having dense (big) breasts.
  4. Having radiation treatment before 30 years old for another condition e.g. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, thyroid cancer; or having ionizing radiation exposure from medical treatment such as x-rays.
  5. Having another form of cancer.
  6. Being tall.
  7. Having a greater birth weight.

Woah Woah! Before you lose your ish thinking, OMG Christina, that’s a lot! I felt the same way. Remember these are the things we can’t change, but they do not automatically mean that we will develop breast cancer. For example, if you had gotten into an accident and the doctor needed to x-ray your leg before treating it, that’s a pretty unavoidable treatment pathway. And typically, the least amount of x-ray radiation possible is used within the diagnosis.

Things you can change/control

  1. Your reproductive health and history – Choosing to have children before 30 years, breastfeeding (the longer, the better) reduces your risk of breast cancer. While using oral contraceptives (some with both Progesterone and Oestrogen) has been linked to a small increase in breast cancer for younger women.
  2. Having hormone replacement therapy – again progesterone and oestrogen replacement therapies (medications) during menopause has been linked to increased risk of breast cancer.
  3. Having regular, vigorous physical activity can reduce your risk of cancer.
  4. Consuming alcoholic drinks – less than 14 units a week is recommended for both men and women to reduce their risk of cancer and other conditions.
  5. Being overweight or obese* – as suggested by the World Cancer Research Fund studies, weight gain before 30 years old seems to be beneficial, however weight gain in later life (menopause) is linked to increased the risk of breast cancer.

*I’m just going to expand a little on the being overweight bit because 1) this is confusing as it relates to the age, and 2) might be complicated by confounders.

From my knowledge, where large epidemiological studies report on people who are living with obesity, other factors such as their socioeconomic class, access to healthful foods, access to healthcare and support, misuse of substances, poor mental health and low physical activity are very likely to affect their health outcomes. So, while living with obesity may be a risk factor for breast cancer, like the other things on the 2nd list above, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

do a self-bbreast examination using a mirror to check for any changes. examine your breasts using lines, circles and wedges.

I know what you’re thinking, but Christina, what role does diet play?

Sorry to burst your bubble but, the same-old, unglamorous theme of “eat your fruit and veg, have some beans and peas, reduce your meat and processed food consumption where possible” still applies. There’s no specific food that has been shown to reduce breast cancer risk up to this point. According to the research, limited evidence suggests that eating non-starchy vegetables, foods containing carotenoids and calcium can decrease your risk. Ironically, these suggestions are the same as each country’s dietary guidelines (which are free for you to access).

Bottom line is, if we eat a varied and delicious diet, have lots of fun physical activity, drink alcohol occasionally, take care of our sexual and reproductive health, we can lower our risk of breast cancer. These actions go hand-in-hand with breast self-exams 7-10 days after your period starts and routine clinical checks of your breasts like Dr Chase-St.Hill suggested. To hear more about the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, you can see our IG live here.  

References & Resources

Barbados Breast Screening Programme

National Cancer Institute (USA)

World Cancer Research Fund – Breast Cancer

World Health Organization – Breast Cancer

Post Author: Christina

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