It’s odd to think of writing about breast cancer as a male member of society. Being male, I have a significantly reduced risk of this type of cancer making an impact on my body and any fear of this malady has been far placed from any thought of personal well-being. Therefore, I’m writing about this mostly from the state of mind that is thinking of the women in my life that I care about.
Breast cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer among women globally and although mortality rates have been steadily decreasing since 1975, 508,000 women still lost their battle with this prevalent disease in 2011 . Also, despite the declining rates of death, there has not been a reduction in the incidence of breast cancer; and it is, in fact, more predominant in first world countries like the US, Canada and Australia. One in ten neoplasms (abnormal growths of tissue) detected in human beings is breast cancer; and there is actually a ten-fold variation in incidences of breast cancer worldwide, depending on socio-economical, reproductive, and nutritional variations from country to country. Something that was even more shocking to me was the fact that when a family migrates from places with low rates of breast cancer (Asia, Poland or Italy) to a place with high rates (USA, Canada or Australia) within as little as one generation their rates increase (if the move is at a young enough age it will actually impact the individuals breast cancer risk) . This shows that the epidemic we’re seeing has environmental factors that are important to consider when thinking about how to reduce risk.
You might be asking then, “how can I, or the women in my life, reduce their risks of acquiring this terrible affliction?”. Well, that’s exactly why I’m writing this. The general consensus seems to be that there are several main ways to reduce the risk factors for developing breast cancer:
In this day and age diet is a major lifestyle component to consider when attempting to decrease risk (not only to cancer). Women who consumed a Mediterranean diet (consisting mostly of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, healthy fats, and limited red meat consumption) were found to have lower rates of breast cancer . This is not incredibly surprising when you consider that a healthy diet is related to a reduction in the rates of several other cancers, and many other health-related conditions.
· Physical Activity:
A risk factor that is very easy to control is physical activity. Women who partake in a healthy amount of moderate to vigorous levels of physical activity can reduce their risks as well. The recommended minimum amount of time to devote to physical activity is 150 minutes a week, but devoting more time is considered to be beneficial. It doesn’t have to be extreme activity either; going for a 30-minute walk, 5 days a week, is all it takes to hit that minimum. Every little bit helps, just get outside and get your activity in, and make sure to keep progressing.
The next reductive tactic is to keep alcohol consumption as low as possible. I know as well as anyone that it’s unrealistic to tell a person to quit drinking altogether, but if we can cut back that definitely helps. If you’re saying “wait, I don’t drink anyways” then well done, you’ve got this part down. The reason for this risk factor is thought to be due to the decrease in folate, vitamin A, and vitamin C that is a symptom of consuming alcohol. These 3 together may help with protecting your body from cell damage .
· Smoking & Second Hand Smoke:
I know, the smoking part is fairly obvious here. But, I’m including it for those that maybe didn’t consider the implications for multiple different kinds of cancer. While lung cancer is a fairly obvious risk with smoking, it also contributes to the development of breast cancer.
· Exposure to Ionizing Radiation:
This is probably not something that everyone considers, but it can be a contributor for many different types of cancer. While this is true, don’t be afraid of mammograms, as modern mammography actually involves a very-low dose for the imaging process. This low dose is considered to be next to harmless as 0.086% of women would accumulate a high enough dosage over their lifetime to be considered dangerous (that’s less than 1 out of 1,000) . Doctors state that the benefits of this form of testing far outweigh the risks.
· Long-Term Oral Contraceptive Use:
Long term use of birth control has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer. This is due to the hormonal fluctuations caused by these contraceptives. But, fortunately for those out there that like to reduce the risk of accidental pregnancy, this risk seems to decrease after usage stops.
Now that we’ve covered the risk factors that are easily controllable, let’s take a look at the ones that aren’t so easy. If you happen to fall under any of these categories make sure your healthcare professional is aware, and ask them about ways that you can decrease your risk:
· Family & Personal History:
If you or someone you’re related to has had breast cancer in the past, then unfortunately you’re at a higher risk yourself, as there seems to be a genetic factor.
· Late Pregnancy:
Unfortunately, women who have children later in life are at a higher risk for post-menopausal breast cancer than those who have children earlier on. This is possibly due to the fact that when a woman goes through pregnancy later in life she has already been exposed to estrogen for a longer period of time. When women go through pregnancy they release hormones that cause genetic changes in the mammary glands. These changes allow mature breast cells to protect against breast cancer. 
· Early Menarche or Late Menopause:
Women who have their first periods early in life (11 or earlier) and those who go through menopause later in life than usual are more likely to be at risk for breast cancer. This is thought to be due to a longer exposure to estrogen across their lifetime.
· Night Shift Work:
Those who work late at night are thought to be more susceptible to breast cancer. This may be due to the artificial lighting they are exposed to. It is known that being exposed to this artificial lighting at night (when you’re supposed to be sleeping) lowers the levels of melatonin in the body, which is a chemical that, among some of its functions, is to control estrogen levels. Again, with higher levels of estrogen there is an associated higher risk of breast cancer.
· Hormone Replacement Therapy:
In some cases these forms of therapy are necessary, and if your doctor suggests it, definitely don’t ignore advice from your healthcare professional. Something you can do though, is to ask them about things you can do to mitigate the risk involved.
I know this is all a little bit overwhelming, and a little bit nerve-wracking, but it is better to be aware of the risks. This can help you avoid them and to prepare yourself for the future. Fortunately, there are a lot of brilliant people out there working on mitigating risk, saving those afflicted, and maybe one day, ending the breast cancer epidemic. How can you help? Visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s website and provide a donation: https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-cancer-support. Also, if you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask your healthcare professional. That’s what they’re there for.
1. Study on the changing global patterns of female breast cancer incidence and mortality: https://breast-cancer-research.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/bcr932
5. Mortality Rates: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213538315000065
6. Induced Cancers From Mammographic Screening: https://www2.rsna.org/timssnet/radiologyselect/dose/PDF%20Files/category%204/V544.pdf
7. Pregnancy and the Risk of Breast Cancer: https://blog.dana-farber.org/insight/2015/01/does-pregnancy-increase-risk-of-breast-cancer/
8. Breast Cancer Mortality Rate 2011: