If I asked you to name the one disease that most women fear these days,
you would probably reply “breast cancer”. And you’d be right!
The media are deluging women with menacing statistics about
the likelihood of developing breast cancer. It’s hard to know whether to
rush off immediately to get a mammogram, to swear off ice cream and prime ribs forever, or to just sit back and hope the odds are in your favor. Being 43, childless, an avid reader on women’s health, and a women’s doctor, I’m in the same boat. I’ve had to sort out for myself the best way to limit my chances of developing breast cancer. I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned so that you can protect yourself to the greatest extent possible from finding yourself with the tough choice about how to deal with breast cancer.
What are the facts? Breast cancer is the leading cause of death for women aged 35 to 50 in the United States. An individual woman’s risk of developing breast cancer in this country is about one in ten. Approximately 130,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States. About 25-35% of these women die from their cancer. The incidence of breast cancer increased by 23% from 1947 to 1975 and by another 21% from 1975 to 1985. Women over 50 have up to a ten times higher risk of breast cancer than those under 50. Between 1975 and 1986, the incidence has increased by about 23% for women over 50 and by 9% for women under 50. Native Hawaiian women have the highest incidence of breast cancer, followed by whites, then blacks. Asian and Pacific Island women, along with Hispanics in New Mexico, are somewhere in the middle. Native American women have the lowest incidence of breast cancer. Studies of Polish and Japanese women show their risk of breast cancer to be significantly higher if they migrate to the United States than if they stay in their native countries.
What is my risk of breast cancer? l) Family history – Your chance of getting breast cancer doubles if your mother or sister had it.The risk is even greater if more than one of your immediate relatives had it. 2) Menarche and menopause- – The longer you continue to have menstrual periods, the higher the chance of getting breast cancer. Women whose menarche (onset of menses) began after age 13 and who experience menopause before 45 have the lowest risk. This suggests that a prolonged, uninterrupted presence of high levels of estrogen in the body may predispose to breast cancer. Women who have anovulatory cycles due to anorexia, obesity, or other reasons, may actually be somewhat protected against breast cancer. 3) Pregnancy – Women who are nulliparous (have not borne children) or whose first full-term pregnancy occurs after age 30 are two to five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women whose first pregnancies occured before age 18. Abortions or miscarriages, though they do interrupt the menstrual cycle, do not appear to offer protection against breast cancer. 4) Hormones – There is a strong suspicion among many people, including myself, that taking estrogen, either in the form of birth control pills or as estrogen replacement therapy after menopause, may increase the risk of developing breast cancer. There is not yet conclusive scientific evidence to back this up. It is common practice to give progesterone along with estrogen in postmenopausal women who still have their uteruses. This is because estrogen replacement alone may cause cancer of the uterus and progesterone has been shown to decrease this risk. One recent study of 23,000 women in Sweden found the women who were given progesterone along with the estrogen to have a four times higher incidence of breast cancer. 5) Dietary fat – There seems to be an increasingly stronger correlation between a high intake of dietary fat and breast cancer. The United States, the Netherlands, and Great Britain, which all have very rich diets, also have the world’s highest rates of breast cancer. Japan and Romania, both having lean diets, have one-sixth to one-half the rate of the United States. 6) Weight – Excess body weight and caloric intake definitely predispose to breast cancer. 7) Alcohol – Alcohol consumption of more than one drink of beer, wine, or liquor a day has been as-sociated with a 40% increase or risk of breast cancer. 8) Fibrocystic breasts – This factor may be overrated in regards to breast disease. It appears that only certain types of cystic breasts, as confirmed by mammogram rather than just a breast exam, actually result in a greater risk of breast cancer. 9) Caffeine – Many women find their breast cysts to go away when they remove caffeine from their diets, however there is no evidence yet that women who have high caffeine intakes are more likely to develop breast cancer.
You might be asking yourself, “So, why is she telling me all of these gory details? Is she trying to scare me?” The answer is an emphatic “no”! My hope in writing this article is to stimulate you to pay more attention to your breasts and to lead a lifestyle which is likely to result in your never getting breast cancer.
So, what can I do to lower my risk of getting breast cancer?
- Don’t obsess about breast cancer! If you follow these guidelines, you are doing all that you can to minimize your risk. Use the statistics as reminders to take care of your body, but don’t get hung up on them. Your destiny is largely up to you. The more you feed a fear, the more likely it is to manifest.
- Keep your breasts happy and healthy. Love them and yourself. We often develop illnesses because of our own unresolved feelings and lack of love for ourselves. Our breasts are beautiful, no matter what their size or shape. Breasts and wombs are the primordial symbols of womanhood, not just motherhood. Appreciate your breasts as a bountiful source of your love and creative energy. Deal with any unresolved maternal, nurturing, and relationship issues so they’re not lurking in your breasts.
- Check your own breasts regularly. Do monthly self-breast examinations after your period is over. If you find any lumps or tenderness that concerns you, have it checked out right away, before your fear or denial mechanisms get going. If you have fears about examining or touching your breasts, get some help to overcome those fears. More than one of the articles I read about breast cancer warned against relying on self- breast exams to discover breast cancer. I agree that women shouldn’t rely totally on self-exams, however self-breast exams allow you to get to know your body better, help you to feel more in control of your body, and will sometimes result in your finding a breast lump which has not been diagnosed. Fortunately, 80% of breast lumps are benign. When you examine your breasts, remember that lumps which are soft, movable, and change with your menstrual cycle are much less likely to be cancerous. Any discharge from the nipple other than breast milk should be checked out by your health professional.
- Have your breasts examined by a professional. Go get a breast exam from an experienced women’s health care practitioner once a year, at the same time you get your Pap smear. She (or he) will have felt a lot of breasts and will be able to offer you reassurance as well as catching any problems.
- Get regular mammograms. Most of us, myself included, are suspicious of radiation of any kind. With good reason. There are definitely some sources of radiation that actually increase the risk of cancers. From all that I have read, however, it seems that mammograms are free of danger and greatly increase the odds of discovering breast cancer earler than you would by just examining your breast. I had my first mammogram last year, after seeing two patients in my office with metastatic breast cancer. It only hurt a little, when they pressed my breasts down on the radiographic plate, and I, like most women, was relieved to have a normal mammogram. I f I feel any suspicious abnormalities in my patients’ breasts, I do recom- mend a mammogram. I n a woman without breast symptoms and with no significant risk of breast cancer, I recommend mammogams beginning age 35 or 40 every two years (or yearly, if she prefers). For women without breast symptoms who are at higher risk of breast cancer, I recommend yearly mammograms beginning at age 35. Beginning at age 50, the rate of breast cancer goes up, so yearly mammograms are a good idea. My motto about mammograms, trite though it may sound, is “Better safe than sorry.”
- Reduce your dietary fat. Whether or not it is confirmed by all the scientific studies, there is clearly enough information to suggest that the more fat you eat, the higher your risk of breast cancer. And since a high fat diet also predisposes to heart disease, obesity, gall bladder disease, osteopoosis, and a myriad of other problems, you can’t lose by cutting down on rich foods. The absolute best way to decrease fat intake is to become a vegan (no meat, chicken, fish, or dairy). Next best is to be an ovo-lacto vegetarian. Next to only include fish, etc. The worst sources of fat are red meat and deep-fried foods, but fats are often hidden. If you do eat dairy, choose low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt. It’s best to begin to reduce fat as early as possible after puberty, before poor eating habits and excessive weight set in.
- Think twice (or more) about taking hormones of any kind. There are natural alternatives for birth control, menstrual problems, and menopause. Consider them carefully before taking hormones.
- If you can, have your babies earlier rather than later. Not every woman has her babies according to schedule, but having your first child before age 30 will reduce your risk of breast cancer.
- Limit alcohol intake. Don’t drink more than one glass of alcohol a couple times a week.
- Cut out caffeine. Caffeine, in addition to jangling your nervous system, causes breast cysts in many women. Even though there’s no direct correlation with breast cancer, why take a chance?
So follow these guidelines and know that you are doing all that you possibly can to protect yourself from developing breast cancer. Be thankful every day that your breasts are healthy. Visualize your breasts overflowing with love, nurturing, and creativity. And let that love and nurturance heal you and all beings.
Dr. Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman is a naturopathic and homeopathic physician and is cofounder of the Northwest Center for Homeopathic Medicine in Edmonds, WA. She is coauthor of The Patient’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicine and Beyond Ritalin: Homeopathic Treatment of ADD and Other Behavioral and Learning Problems. She can be reached at (206) 774-5599.