October is breast cancer month. We’re all familiar with the yearly campaign to bring awareness to women’s health. Maybe you wear pink or participate in an organized walk to raise money.
But how much do you actually know about breast cancer and ways to protect yourself?
Did you know it’s estimated that about 1 in 8 Canadian women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. In 2017, this made up 25% of all new cancer cases in women.
Like many types of cancer, there are certainly things outside of our control when it comes to lowering your risk. The good news though is that there are also things completely in your control. Changes you can make that not only protect your health but also help you live well each day.
About breast cancer
Let’s start with a quick review of what breast cancer is.
Our bodies are made up of cells. Like other types of cancer, a tumour can start to grow when there is a change in the way the cell grows or acts.
Breast cancer can happen in men but it’s more common in women. This is because women’s breasts go through many changes over their lifetime. Hormones continuously change – monthly during menstruating years, throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding, again during menopause.
One hormone in particular, estrogen, is linked to breast cancer and can even help some cancers to grow in the breast. In the past, when hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was more commonly prescribed and used, breast cancer rates were seen to increase.
While there are known risk factors, some women develop breast cancer without them. Some of these risk factors include genetics or other things out of our control. But there are some lifestyle habits that may put someone at a higher risk of developing breast cancer:
- physical inactivity
- alcohol use
- high body weight
Interestingly, breast cancer has been seen more commonly in developed countries, like Canada, and among people living in a higher socio-economic position. It’s thought that this is related events affect the amount of estrogen a woman’s body is exposed to over her life, such as having fewer children and pregnancies later in life.
Risks of developing breast cancer increase with age and usually occurs in women between 50 to 69 years of age.
Ok, so there’s genetics you can’t change … hormones that are mostly out of your control … and you might not be able to change the number or timing of children. But as I touched on above, there are changes that can really lower your chance of breast cancer as your body ages.
6 lifestyle steps to take this breast cancer month
The Canadian Cancer Society tells us these steps can lower our cancer risk in general:
- Live smoke-free
- Be sun safe
- Have a healthy body weight – body fat produces small amounts of estrogen, even after menopause. This means your body is exposed to more estrogen and risk increases. Studies with women who haven’t take HRT show that having a body mass index (BMI) of 31.1 were 2.5 times more likely of having breast cancer than women who had a BMI of 22.6 or less (Cdn Cancer Society)
- Eat well
- Move more, sit less
- Limit alcohol – even moderate drinking causes higher levels of estrogen and lowers levels of nutrients that protect against cell damage (like vitamin A, vitamin C and folate)
If you are keeping count, that’s 3 steps (or 1/2 of the tips) that might involve your eating patterns!
Sounds easy but here’s what Canadian women are actually doing
Those 6 steps sound easy, even like common-sense.
- 47% of Canadian women are not getting enough weekly physical activity … aim for 30 minutes/day of activity that gets your heart going
- 71% of the waking hours of Canadian women are spent sitting … take short frequent breaks, stand or move for as little as 2-3 mins
- drinking any amount or type of alcohol increases your risk of cancer … to minimize this risk, women should keep intakes to 1 or less drinks/d (1 drink = 5oz 12% wine) and men should aim for 2 or less a day
- 15% of Canadian women are smokers … aim to quit. It’s never too late. Within 10 years of quitting, your risk of dying from lung cancer is cut in half. Note: no amount of second-hand smoke is safe either. It stays on clothing and surfaces and increases your risk of cancer also.
- 56% of Canadian women are classified as overweight or obese … speak with your doctor or a dietitian to work out what a healthy weight is for you and how you can get there
- too much red meat or processed meat can raise your risk of colorectal cancer … aim for 3 or less servings of red meat per week (1 serving = size of deck of cards) and save ham or hot dogs for special occasions
- 62% of Canadian women have less than 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day … fresh, frozen or canned doesn’t matter, but aim for more (ideally 7-10 servings a day)
Visit Canadian Cancer Society’s interactive online tool It’s My Life to learn about these numbers and where your habits sit.
Knowing and doing are different things
The ways to lower your risk of breast cancer are the same as for many other types of cancer. You’ve probably heard those ways many times before. But knowing all the ‘right’ things to do may be very different than actually making the changes.
How many times have you thought, “Wow that’s pretty scary, I’m going to change. This breast cancer month will be different. Starting Monday, that’s it. I’m going to do ALL of the right things. Because this is important! I’ve known too many people who’ve dealt with cancer.”
Sound familiar? I know I have certainly been there. In fact, writing this now, I’m there again as I see these numbers. Even when I have the best intentions, the strongest of motivations. Even if I start out making some changes, life gets in the way.
As creatures of comfort, we go into auto-pilot, going back to the way we have always done things because it’s often the path of least resistance, the easy way when life gets busy or hard.
The good news? Working on 1 thing at a time can help your new habits stick. When you can keep it up, add another new thing. And before you know it, you’ll have made at least a few changes that are no longer changes. They become the way you do things, the easy way.
3 things you can start doing now
Whether you’re reading this during breast cancer month or not, there are things you can start immediately. Like before you even finish reading this article!
- Get off your chair and finish your internet stuff standing up, do some squats or walk in place if you can.
- Keep a journal of what you eat and drink for the next 3-5 days – notice patterns, timing of meals and snacks, balance and variety in your eating, when you’re prone to cravings, the number of times in a day you have fruits or vegetables, any physical or emotional symptoms you find yourself having. Write it all down. At the end, look back over it with curious eyes – no judgement, just try to learn something from what you see.
- If you smoke – talk with your doctor to find out your options for quitting! For oh so many reasons.
Whether you want to protect yourself from breast cancer or you want to have the best quality of life for your everyday, we’re talking about many of the same changes! One step at a time. It’s never too late.
If you feel paralyzed from taking your first step, you’re not alone! Maybe you feel like you’re lacking motivation or willpower. Or you’re so confused about all the information out there you don’t even know what to do first.
I’d love to chat a little more to help you take the right first step for you. Reserve your free Q&A call and find out if and how a Dietitian might help you take your nutritional health back into your own hands.
Or if you’re ready to make your nutrition plan, take a look at my services to get started today!
For more information about breast cancer month, visit the Canadian Cancer Society’s website and search for your region.
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on empowering people with young minds and aging bodies as they enter their retirement years and beyond. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.