In the last post, we talked about the major risk factors for breast cancer. Unfortunately, a whole lot of them, such as a family history of cancer, you can’t do anything about. But there are some really important things you can do to affect your chances of getting breast cancer—and other cancers as well.
Every five years, the American Cancer Society (ACS) brings together a panel of experts who review hundreds of the latest scientific studies and create detailed guidelines for healthy, cancer-resistant living that are based on sound science.
According to the latest guidelines from the ACS: “For the great majority of Americans who do not use tobacco, the most important modiﬁable determinants of cancer risk are weight control, dietary choices, and levels of physical activity.” Then the guidelines offer up the latest findings on what lifestyle habits, specifically, make a difference—and what don’t. (Tip: No evidence that garlic reduces cancer.)
The drumbeat from the ACS and most other sources is very consistent and very clear: diet and exercise are your best bets for reducing cancer risk. Even better, a healthy diet, regular exercise, and maintaining a good weight critically impacts your overall quality of life. You will be more flexible, have more energy, and a better sex life. You will preserve your joints; you are less likely to have heart problems, diabetes, and dementia. And…you’ll just feel better.
Such a deal!
So, let’s drill down into some of the details. Breast tissue is particularly susceptible to environmental insult because breast cells take longer to mature than those in other organs and because immature cells react more to environmental hormones. “The breast is a sponge for everything in the environment,” says Dr. Jose Russo, breast pathologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. In fact, breast cells don’t completely mature until a woman has a full-term pregnancy. Then, breastfeeding completes that maturation cycle.
Additionally, the way we live and the environmental stresses that surround us are different from even a generation ago. We are more sedentary at our jobs and at home; more of us are carrying a lot more weight than is good for us; we are exposed to thousands of new and often untested chemicals in water, air, earth, and food; animals grown for food are routinely given antibiotics and hormones that we then ingest.
This could seem like a depressing list of uncontrollables, but we can do a lot to limit our exposure to carcinogens and to create a healthy, cancer-resistant life for ourselves.
The main focus of the ACS (and other) guidelines is to encourage us to maintain a healthy weight (“Be as lean as possible without being underweight”). According to the ACS, being overweight or obese accounts for 14 to 20 percent of all cancer deaths, and specifically breast cancer because fat cells release an estrogen-like hormone in postmenopausal women. The guidelines state: “Overweight and obesity are clearly associated with an increased risk of developing many cancers, including cancers of the breast in postmenopausal women.”
Determining your body mass index (BMI) is the most accurate way to determine where you fall on the skinny-to-fat continuum. Here’s an informative calculator that gives you a “smart” BMI range based on gender, age, height, and weight.
In order to lose weight, you have to both reduce the calories you take in as food and to burn more calories than you ingest—i.e. by being physically active. In fact, evidence suggests that physical activity all by itself is a protective factor against breast cancer. The ACS recommends 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate activity per week, such as walking or yoga, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, such as jogging, swimming, or cross-country skiing. “This level of physical activity has been shown to have clear health beneﬁts, including reduced rates of premature death and reduced incidence of or mortality from various cancers,” according to the ACS guidelines.
Now, I completely understand how difficult changing lifelong habits can be. I also understand that exercise can be hard and even unpleasant. If you sit in front of the computer at work and flop in front of the TV at home because you’re mentally exhausted, it’s going to be very hard to begin a half-hour daily workout regimen.
Here’s the deal: a little is better than none, especially at first. So if you can only do fifteen minutes, or ten, or five, just start there. If you miss a day or two (or three), don’t make that an excuse for giving up. The trick is to persist. Yes, it’s hard to get started again, but the point is to just do it, not to do it perfectly.
Psychologically, you’ll tend to stick with a change if you make a commitment to a specific regimen (say, walking for a half-hour five days a week) and then tell someone about it. Choose an activity you like and do it with others. Join Curves or the local gym or just walk for a certain distance or period of time. Honestly, it’s a better way to chill after a stressful day at work than sitting in front of a screen.
I will tell you from personal experience that when regular physical activity becomes a habit, however haltingly, you will notice the change—in your mood, in your flexibility, in your strength, and, often, in how those nagging little aches and pains begin to fade. I’m a true believer because I’ve experienced the benefit. (And I will confess that it’s still hard to make myself get off the couch—but I always feel great after.)
Physical activity is one critical part of a healthy, cancer-resistant lifestyle. Diet is another, and both work together to keep weight at an appropriate level. There is no magic bullet for absolute protection from diseases like breast cancer, but the ACS guidelines offer “…a decreased likelihood that the disease will occur…” Plus, an increased likelihood of a higher quality of life.
Which is about the best promise anyone can get in life, don’t you think?
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.