It seems like everything you do, or don’t do, eat, or don’t eat, or even breathe in can cause cancer these days. Until now, you probably haven’t organized your life around how to avoid cancer, and you might have had no risk factors, but you still got it anyway. So going forward you might want to be aware of the risk factors that you can control so you can manage them to prevent a new breast cancer.
Some Basic Factors You Just Can’t Change
1. Family History. If it’s in your genes, there’s not much you can do, except regular monitoring to catch any recurrences or cancers in the other breast in the earliest stages. In the extreme, you might consider prophylactic mastectomy if you carry the genes.
2. Early menstruation or late menopause. If you started menstruating before age 12, or went through menopause after 55, the many years of estrogen surges from your monthly cycle may trigger breast cancer, as some types grow and flourish on estrogen.
3. Childbirth after age 30 or no children. Hopefully you haven’t done your family planning around whether you might get breast cancer, as there are much more important decisions around bringing a child into this world. But late childbearing or not having children is a risk factor because of the continuous exposure to monthly estrogen cycles, without an interruption for pregnancy.
4. Exposure to radiation. If you’ve ever received any form of radiation to the chest area before age 30, say for Hodgkin’s disease, you are more susceptible to breast cancer.
5. Use of estrogen/progesterone. This increases risk, mostly for lobular cancer.
And Those Over Which You Have Control
6. Smoking. If you ever have, just don’t, not ever again. You want your life—not breast, lung, or many other types of cancer. Enough said.
7. Obesity. Fat cells produce estrogen, a potential nutrient source for breast cancer cells. If you’ve always wanted that lean, healthy body, now is the time to make it happen, not just for cosmetic, but for very real health reasons.
8. High-fat diet. Again, fat consumption boosts estrogen, and the last thing you need after breast cancer is more estrogen. So, stick to a diet low in saturated fats (some monounsaturated fats are fine). You’ll also prevent obesity (see the discussion in Chapter 9, “Nutrition: Looking at Food in an Entirely Different Way”).
9. Lack of exercise. You’ve been bombarded, ad nauseam, by information on the health benefits of exercise. So you don’t need me to tell you any more about how regular aerobic exercise strengthens the immune system to rid your body of bad cells before they turn cancerous (yes, everyone has bad cells; cancer just forms when your immune system can’t eliminate them from your body properly). But I will tell you that a review in the Journal of the NCI (1/21/98) evaluated a range of studies on the effects of exercise on breast cancer, and reaffirmed its risk-reducing effect in healthy women of all ages.
10. Alcohol. There is a growing body of evidence linking alcohol intake to breast cancer, especially heavy use.
* Reprinted with permission from Just Get Me Through This! A Practical Guide To Coping With Breast Cancer.
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