October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, our annual reminder that over a lifetime one in eight women will have to cope with this disease. That’s a worrisome number, but many of us don’t stop to remember that if one in eight will develop breast cancer, seven in eight won’t. Still, thinking about breast cancer is bound to raise the question of your personal risks and what you can and can’t do about them.
We can’t change some breast cancer risks: being female, getting older, having a family history of the disease, inheriting one of the genetic mutations that elevate risk: BRCA1 or BRCA2. Nor can women control when they begin to menstruate and when they reach menopause: the more years in between, the higher the threat of breast cancer, possibly because of longer exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone. But there are some surprising risks we can change. Take a look:
A new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that among 989 breast cancer patients, women who were most stressed out were also most likely to have an aggressive form of the disease. Compared to the least stressed women, those with high tension were 38 percent more likely to have estrogen-receptor negative tumors, which are harder to treat after surgery. Still at issue: whether the women were stressed because they had breast cancer or whether stress was driving their disease. The patients whose stress scores were, on average, highest were black or Latina rather than white. To manage stress try meditation, mindfulness, tai chi or laughter yoga. Long walks and journaling help, too.
Could your diet be pumping up your risks? Some evidence suggests that eating smarter could be protective. Consider these findings: Some researchers theorize that drinking green tea on a regular basis may explain why women in China have a breast cancer rate that’s four to five times lower than ours. Researchers also report that women whose diets are high in fruits, vegetables and fiber are less likely to develop breast cancer than those with less healthy eating habits. A study published this year showed that women who eat the most fish, providing omega-3 fatty acids, or take fish oil supplements have lower breast cancer risk than those who don’t get these nutrients. The spice, turmeric may also slow the growth of certain tumors, including breast cancers: in the lab, its active ingredient, the antioxidant curcumin, has been shown to interfere with key aspects of cancer development and spread. You can get turmeric in Indian curries and by drinking turmeric tea.
Working the Night Shift
Here, the added breast cancer risk may stem from how artificial light at night upsets genetic regulation of our circadian rhythm and body clocks. Another possibility: artificial light at night may somehow tweak body chemistry, possibly causing a shortage of melatonin, the hormone that maintains our internal body clocks. (Melatonin is produced in the dark; exposure to bright light at night could result in a shortfall.) Solution? Try to avoid shift work, at least until researchers learn more about the breast cancer risk it presents.
While it is beginning to appear more and more likely that smoking may be a breast cancer hazard, the big surprise from a recent West Virginia University study was that women who had the most exposure to secondhand smoke – at home or at work – had a 32 percent rise in risk. That was higher that the threat found in current smokers, who were 16 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than lifelong nonsmokers. Among former smokers, risk was magnified by an average of 9 percent; those who began smoking at an early age up to 21 percent more likely to develop breast cancer. If you smoke, that’s yet another reason to kick the habit; otherwise, do as much as you can to avoid secondhand smoke.
Couch Potato Syndrome
Lack of physical exercise can boost breast cancer risk. But you can reduce it by 18 percent by taking brisk walks regularly. A total of 1.25 to 2.5 hours a week are enough to get you that 18 percent risk reduction—and a variety of other health benefits. The American Cancer Society recommends 45 to 60 minutes of physical activity five days a week.