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Changing Your Life

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Unfortunately the answer is that nothing can stop you from getting breast cancer. All the scientists and doctors in the world have not determined a way to prevent cancer developing.

But the good news is that we are clear about the ways we can cure cancer. And that cancer caught early is normally the easiest to cure.

Will regular mammograms prevent cancer?

Regular mammography provides a method of early diagnosis and allows doctors to investigate worrying areas of the breast before they develop into cancer, but it does not prevent a patient from getting cancer. We have not developed any method of doing that yet. We only know how to reduce the risk of getting cancer.

Will eating a healthy diet prevent breast cancer?

This is difficult because eating a healthy diet is good for you, and can reduce your risk of other cancers such as colon cancer. It is also good for your heart to eat healthily and exercise regularly. There is no known way to prevent breast cancer however, and there is no diet (despite some being marketed) to prevent or reduce breast cancer. It is a good idea to lose weight however, because we know that and increased BMI can increase your risk of breast cancer after the menopause.

 

Myths about what causes breast cancer

We may not understand fully why cancer happens, and we may not know how to prevent it. But we do know what doesn’t cause cancer. And here are some of the myths you may have heard. The good news is that they are not true.

Does the pill cause breast cancer?

Many trials have looked at the link between the pill and breast cancer. The pill contains hormones which mimic the hormones the body uses to control fertility (oestrogen and progesterone) and it has been shown that these can increase the risk of getting breast cancer whilst you are taking them. In the decade after the pill is stopped however, your risk goes back to normal. Only some studies show this risk however, and it seems like it may only affect some people. It is important to discuss this kind of risk before you start the pill, particularly if your family or personal risk of breast cancer is high.

If I use Anti-perspirants and deodorants do they cause breast cancer?

This worry comes from the idea that it is good for the body to sweat to get rid of potential ‘toxins’. If these ‘toxins’ build up they may cause cancer. Whilst many people are concerned that there may be many environmental reasons why people get cancer, it is unlikely that a failure to sweat or toxin build-up may be responsible. This claim has been examined in a study from a large cancer centre in America. It found no association between anti-perspirants and cancer.

In another study the investigators were concerned that chemicals in many beauty products called parabens, were showing up in the cells of breast cancers. The method the scientists used to investigate this was flawed however, and the link has been disproved. You must always think carefully when reading scare stories about cancer and it is a good idea to get advice from the big cancer organisations who examine these claims carefully. The National Cancer Institute in the USA believes that there is insufficient data to support the link. So for now it is safe to use Paraben-containing anti-perspirants, and face creams, and shampoos and all the other involved products.

“Wearing a bra can give you cancer…”

There is no relationship between wearing a bra and getting cancer. It is sometimes believed that bras stop toxins flowing out of the breast but this has never been proven and does not make anatomical sense. It is true that obesity is a risk factor for cancer, so it may be that slender women, who may not need to wear bras, get cancer less often but it is unrelated to the bra.

“Drinking water from plastic bottles can give you cancer…”

Plastic bottles are made from many chemicals and some of these, called dioxins, have been found to cause cancer in animal experiments. It is thought that exposing water to the bottles, especially if heated by the sun, can cause the chemicals such as BPA to flow out into the water and increase the risk of cancer. As yet there is no correlation between breast cancer and these chemicals in humans. Most one-time bottles used for water do not contain BPA but to be on the safer side, you can opt for bottles labelled BPA-free, or labelled five, four, two or one in the recycling emblem on the bottom.

“Using cell phones could be harmful to your breast…”

The largest study done on this subject, published in 2010 could not find a link, but it was also unable to disprove a link. One of the problems is trying to estimate how much ‘high’ use from a person’s own estimate is. One type of brain cancer was increased among frequent cell phone users but overall they had a lower rate of cancer than never-users.

Healthy living is the new catch phrase of our time. The media is filled with stories and pictures of people working out in gyms, eating health foods and living the good life. While there is nothing wrong with healthy living many of the messages carried in the media are overstated. People are told to mega dose on vitamins, to eat faddy diets and to buy new wonder pills that are claimed to give them new vigour and vitality. Many even suggest they can prevent cancer.

So what is the truth? Taking a rational look at the evidence, world medical literature to date strongly suggests that living a healthy lifestyle is indeed beneficial to your health. But what exactly is a “healthy lifestyle” and how do we ensure we live a healthy life?

What is good for you?

  • Eating a low saturated fat, low salt, high fibre diet
  • Taking some supplement or vitamins if you feel you need them
  • Regular aerobic exercise (half hour on alternate days is the minimum)
  • Stopping smoking
  • Alcohol consumption restricted to two units per day
  • Avoiding stress

What is bad for you?

  • Taking mega doses of vitamins (particularly vitamin A).
  • Taking mega doses of minerals (particularly iron, zinc, selenium).
  • Passive smoking (even if you do not smoke yourself, sitting in a room with other smokers can be damaging to your health).
  • Listening to the glib promises of unbelievable vitality if you take this new ‘natural remedy’. In other words, beware of the ‘gurus’.
  • Not going to your doctor when you notice that something is wrong (see below).

How does this affect my breasts?

There seems to be a close relationship between dietary fat intake and breast cancer incidence in most populations. Although this does not prove that high saturated fat diet will significantly increase the risk of breast cancer, it is very suggestive. Closely associated is the observation that obesity has been shown to double the breast cancer risk in women after the menopause. So if you are fat and over fifty years, your risk of getting carcinoma of the breast is twice that of a thin fifty-year-old female. No association between obesity and breast cancer has ever been demonstrated in pre-menopausal females or women who are still having their periods. There are many other advantages to eating a low fat, high fibre diet.

Eating a healthy diet

Try to replace saturated fat with good fats in your diet. These so-called good fats are unsaturated, either poly-unsaturated or mono-unsaturated.

These are found in vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, corn and soya bean oils as well as olive oil, avocados and rapeseed oil (canola oil). The important component of these oils is the omega 6 fatty acid, linoleic acid. The other good fat is fish oil fat. The chemicals in fish oil are eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexanoic acid, which are beneficial to the body. Fish oils tend to lower the triglyceride fats in the body and contain omega 3 fatty acids and are found in high concentration in cold seawater fish such as mackerel and salmon.

Eat fresh fruit and vegetables. These should form a large component of any diet. Besides being a source of fibre (roughage), these foods contain the antioxidant vitamins (vitamins E, C and A). Antioxidants are free radical scavengers in the body. They mop up the toxic free radicals that may play a part in cancer, heart disease, aging and so on.

We should eat about thirty grams of fibre per day. In South Africa, rural people tend to eat more fibre and easily reach this but urban people tend to eat half of this or less. One of the best ways to boost fibre intake is to supplement your daily fibre intake with high quality fibre supplement. Other ways to boost your fibre intake include eating unrefined breads and cereals and plenty of fresh vegetables. A recently completed large study involving more than 40 000 people over a period of ten years in the USA found an inverse relationship between increased fibre intake and decreased heart attacks.

Avoiding heavy alcohol consumption

There is a strong correlation between high alcohol consumption and breast cancer. Women who drink more than two units of alcohol per day (one large glass of wine) may have a higher risk of getting breast cancer. Before alcohol is given up totally, it is important to remember that small daily doses of alcohol are actually good for you. That will not increase the risk of breast cancer but will reduce the risk of heart disease. This is because alcohol raises the levels of good cholesterol (HDL cholesterol) which decreases the chance of coronary artery disease.

What does exercise do for you?

Exercise increases good cholesterol which is protective against heart disease. It also helps blood pressure and helps you to lose weight. Recent findings from a large study from the USA found that breast cancer patients who walk or exercise for three to five hours a week are 50% less likely to die from their cancer.

Give up Smoking Each cigarette you smoke harms your health and passive smoking harms those around. Cigarette smoke causes health problems due to blocked arteries, cancer (lung, bladder, oral) and obstructive lung disease (emphysema, chronic bronchitis, aggravates asthma). It should be noted however, that no correlation between smoking and breast cancer has ever been demonstrated so smoking does not cause breast cancer.

Avoid prolonged stress

It is difficult to avoid stress nowadays. Although it has repeatedly been demonstrated that stress can damage your health there is no relationship between stress and breast cancer. The hormones that are affected by stress however can suppress the immune system with decreased wellness. Some good ways to bring down stress levels are through exercise or by increasing the ability to relax, by using relaxation techniques, listening to music, being in nature. Alternative medicine such as aromatherapy, reflexology or acupuncture may also help.

Increasing your general wellness means increasing your knowledge of diseases and understanding your risks.  Your risk of becoming ill or suffering from different medical conditions changes throughout your life. This is a guide to the ways you can maintain good health and increase your vigilance against possible diseases. It is important to have a general practitioner who will get to know you and understand your health conditions.

I am a young women (19-39)

General health: get a full check-up once a year, including discussion about weight, smoking, alcohol consumption. This also includes surveillance for depression and thyroid diseases and surveillance of moles.

Heart: Have your blood pressure checked every year, and a cholesterol check routinely.

Reproductive screening: Have a cervical (Pap) Smear every year for cervical cancer screening. Ensure you know your HIV status and practice safe sex.

The Senses: Have a hearing test every ten years. Make sure you are seeing your dentist regularly to avoid nasty surprises.

 

I am in my middle age (40-49)

General health: get a full check-up once a year, including discussion about weight, smoking, alcohol consumption. This also includes surveillance for depression and thyroid diseases and surveillance of moles.

Heart: Have your blood pressure checked every year, and a cholesterol check routinely. Ask your doctor to check your blood sugar level to check for diabetes every one to three years.

Reproductive screening: Continue with cervical (Pap) smears every year. Ensure you know your HIV status and practice safe sex.

The Senses: Have a baseline eye test at 40 and continue every two years. Continue with hearing test every ten years and make sure you are seeing your dentist regularly.

 

I am a mature woman (50-65)

General health: get a full check-up once a year, including discussion about weight, smoking, alcohol consumption. This also includes surveillance for depression and thyroid diseases and surveillance of moles.

Heart: Have your blood pressure checked every year, and a cholesterol check routinely. Ask your doctor to check your blood sugar level to check for diabetes every one to three years.

Strong bones: Discuss having a bone mineral density test after you reach the menopause.

Reproductive screening: Continue with cervical (Pap) smears every year. Ensure you know your HIV status and practice safe sex.

Keeping a healthy gut: Guard against colonic polyps and cancer by having a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years or colonoscopy every ten years. Faecal Occult Blood tests may also assist in ensuring any colon problems are picked up before they develop into cancer.

The Senses: Have a baseline eye test at 40 and continue every two years. Continue with hearing test every ten years and make sure you are seeing your dentist regularly.

 

I am older and wiser (above 65 years)

General health: get a full check-up once a year, including discussion about weight, smoking, alcohol consumption. This also includes surveillance for depression and thyroid diseases and surveillance of moles.

Heart: Have your blood pressure checked every year, and a cholesterol check routinely. Ask your doctor to check your blood sugar level to check for diabetes every one to three years.

Strong bones: Have at least one bone mineral density test to ensure you are not at risk of increased fractures from weak bones.

Reproductive screening: If you have had three negative smears and are not at high risk, you can choose whether to stop having cervical (Pap) smears. Ensure you know your HIV status and practice safe sex.

Keeping a healthy gut: Guard against colonic polyps and cancer by having a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years or colonoscopy every ten years. Faecal Occult Blood tests may also assist in ensuring any colon problems are picked up before they develop into cancer.

The Senses: Have a baseline eye test at 40 and continue every two years. Continue with hearing test every ten years and make sure you are seeing your dentist regularly.

It is important to remember many vitamins, supplements and herbs contain active ingredients which can interact with any medications you take. For instance, some supplements can decrease the effectiveness of breast cancer chemotherapy and radiation. It is extremely important to consider all supplements as medications and inform your doctor of what you are taking.

Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) (avoid during pregnancy). The therapeutic use of Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) was long considered as “alternative medicine” but today European and American physicians commonly prescribe it as the drug of choice to treat mastalgia, i.e. tender and lumpy breasts with symptoms of pain and dull heaviness.  The effective ingredient of EPO is gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which in the body turns into prostaglandin PGE1. It seems to correct the disturbed fatty acid metabolism often prevalent in mastalgia and PMS. Mastalgia often occurs in connection with Pre-Menstrual Syndrome for which EPO also is an effective, a relatively cheap and a safe therapy. The response to EPO therapy is usually slow, often requiring over 6 months for full results.

Folic acid: A team of American and Chinese researchers has discovered that folic acid (folate) may be effective in helping prevent breast cancer in both pre- and postmenopausal women. The researchers found a clear correlation between dietary intake of folic acid and the risk of breast cancer. The protective effect of folic acid was even more pronounced in women who also had a high dietary intake of vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and methionine. Researchers believe that folic acid exerts its protective effect by preventing errors in DNA replication and by helping to regenerate methionine, a vital component in DNA synthesis. They also point out that both vitamin-B12 and vitamin-B6 are vital cofactors required for folic acid to “do its job”.

NOTE: Most multivitamins have levels of folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 well above the levels found to be beneficial in the Chinese study.

Vitamin B6 Improves the symptoms of PMS (Pre-Menstrual Syndrome) and fibrocystic breast changes. Some women find that taking vitamin B6 supplements eases PMS symptoms. This is particularly true for women who suffer from severe breast pain – fibrocystic breasts, specifically around the time that PMS symptoms occur. The nutrient appears to help by assisting the liver in its effort to wash excess oestrogen from the body. In addition, B6 raises levels of the hormone progesterone and assists in the manufacture of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that enhances mood.

Green tea or green tea extract American researchers recently concluded that a compound in green tea inhibits the growth of cancer cells. The secret of green tea lies in the fact it is rich in catechin polyphenols, particularly epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). EGCG is a powerful anti-oxidant and besides inhibiting the growth of cancer cells, it kills cancer cells without harming healthy tissue. Further studies have shown however that it is unlikely that the average intake of Green Tea will protect against cancer.

Indole-3-Carbinol Cruciferous vegetables of the Brassica genus, for example, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower contain indole-3-carbinol and researchers suspect that this component is one of several found in vegetables that may protect against cancer. Diets high in fruit and vegetables are associated with a decreased risk of cancer. In premenopausal women, a supplement containing I3C and 7-hydroxymatairesinol significantly increased the urinary 2:16-hydroxyestrone ratio, a known biomarker for the reduction of breast cancer risk. Because it may induce cytochrome P450 enzymes (14), I3C may interact with several medications. Root vegetables such as turnips also contain some indole-3-carbinol.

Grape seed extract: The antioxidants in grape seed extract work hard at helping to control cellular damage, routinely hunting down and neutralizing mutations within the genetic material of cells that could lead to tumour formation. The development and progression of cancers of the lung, breast, stomach, prostate, colon, skin and other body parts may be stalled as a result.

Rooibos tea has been thought to be a healthy alternative to other types of hot drinks. It contains 37 anti-oxidant compounds which destroy free radicals in the body thus protecting the cells against attack. There has never been a scientific study of the potential cancer-fighting benefits of Rooibos however.