You know that silly song about the thigh bone being connected to the hip bone—and so on?
Well, the kernel of truth in the ditty is that, when it comes to health and our bodies, things are indeed beautifully and intricately connected.
You can’t do healthy things for your thigh bone—or your heart or your sex life—and not have it affect other corporal systems as well. So, while we might focus on breast health in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, rest assured that healthy, cancer-free breasts involve habits and choices that are good for the rest of your body as well.
There’s a lot to celebrate when it comes to breast cancer, like steadily decreasing rates since the year 2000. But we still have a long way to go. About 12 percent—1 in 8 women in the US—will develop invasive breast cancer sometime in her life. Our most significant risk factors are 1. being a woman and 2. being older.
Women over 55 account for two-thirds of invasive breast cancers diagnosed each year. This is because, over time, we tend to accrue genetic mutations, and with age we’re less adept at repairing them.
Those are the facts. But we don’t have to helplessly wait for the shoe to drop. We can make lifestyle adjustments that will lower our risk of getting this cancer and improve our overall quality of life, including our sex life. (And don’t forget that a healthy sex life is also good for our health.)
Because it’s all connected, right?
So here are lifestyle changes that you can make specifically targeted toward breast health:
Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese—those with a body mass index (BMI) over 25—increases one’s risk of developing breast cancer, especially in postmenopausal women. This could be because estrogen is stored in fatty tissue, and women who have more fat are also exposed to higher levels of estrogen, which has been undeniably linked to breast cancer. But other issues related to obesity may also be involved, such as insulin and glucose levels. Some estimates suggest that 17 percent of breast cancers in North America could be avoided simply by maintaining a healthy body weight. Check out this page for a solid, common-sense approach to weight loss.
Eat healthy food. Not only will a healthy diet help maintain a healthy weight, but it’s a critical component to avoiding cancer. Some foods contain properties that help repair the wear and tear to our bodies in the normal course of life. These “super foods” contain antioxidants that help protect our bodies from cancers.
The link between food and cancer isn’t always straightforward or well-understood, and dietary fads change with the season. Basically, though, the approach to healthy eating remains the same: eat a variety of foods with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Avoid processed foods. Avoid fats and sugars. Above all, avoid super-sugary beverages, which are directly linked not only with obesity but also with some forms of cancer.
Finally, eat fresh and eat at home. (You can’t control what goes into your food at a restaurant.) Eat organic foods to avoid exposure to synthetic chemicals.
While the voices touting various diets and food fads are myriad, confusing and contradictory, here are some basic food facts from breastcancer.org. The USDA also has a website with tons of food and diet information here.
Exercise. Weight, diet, and exercise. This is the trifecta of good health. Some well-regarded sources say that 30-40 percent of cancers could be avoided simply with these healthy lifestyle choices. That’s staggering. And when you add in quality of life factors that come with the trifecta, well, it’s overwhelmingly worth the difficulty of losing weight, eating well, and exercising regularly, wouldn’t you say?
Regular, moderate exercise can lower your risk of breast cancer. Not to mention all the other good things you get with exercise, such as better mood, cardiovascular and joint health, greater stamina and flexibility, better sleep, better bones, and more regular bowel movements. What are we waiting for?
Even women who have already been diagnosed with breast cancer may improve survival rates or prevent recurrence with moderate exercise, like walking only 4-5 hours per week, according to the American Cancer Institute.
Don’t have time? As the trainers in my exercise video say, “Make time.” It doesn’t matter what your physical ability is right now—just start slow and keep on going.
Don’t drink. Sorry to be a killjoy, but the more you drink, the greater your risk. A woman who has three alcoholic drinks per week is 15 percent more likely to get breast cancer than a woman who doesn’t drink at all. If you’re on hormone replacement therapy or if you’ve already been diagnosed with breast cancer, you should be one of those non-drinking women.
What about that healthy glass of red wine? Sorry, it all counts. The benefit of red wine doesn’t outweigh the risk. If you’ve never had breast cancer, just don’t drink every day, but if you have risk factors, switch to non-alcoholic options.
Don’t smoke. This almost goes without saying. Yes, the major risk is lung cancer, but actively smoking as well as exposure to second-hand smoke increases the risk of breast cancer in premenopausal smokers. Plus, women who smoke have greater difficulty recovering from breast cancer treatment.
Avoid chemical exposure. This is like trying to dodge raindrops, given the chemical soup we live in every day. And most of the chemicals in our environment and in the things we use have never been tested for toxicity or carcinogenic properties. Some types of chemicals are known to be hormone-disrupting, which alter the way our natural hormones function. Research is ongoing about the way these substances work and their link to possible cancers, but the connection isn’t well understood.
In the meantime, how do we negotiate the reality of the world we inhabit without neurotic overreaction but also without putting our heads in the sand? Of greatest concern with regard to breast cancer are those chemical with hormone-disrupting properties, including those in pesticides, growth hormone residues in meat and dairy products, and certain plastics.
In general, some precautionary practices would be to
- Buy organic food. Here’s a list of the “dirty dozen”—the foods that have the highest levels of pesticide residue.
- Plant a garden. Put up your own food.
- Use fewer and simpler cleaning and personal care products. Look for certified “green” cleaning products (with GREENGUARD or EcoLogo insignias, for example) or make your own.
- Don’t use pesticides on your lawn or garden.
- Use BPA-free plastics or glass or stainless steel jars and bottles. Avoid #3 (PVC), #6 (polystyrene) and #7 (polycarbonate) plastics, which are linked to breast cancer.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.