October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It can feel a little overwhelming….all these days/weeks/months for awareness of challenging topics like breast cancer. There may be too many to remember, plus they aren’t always pleasant to think about. These reminders are necessary though. When we see them, they bring our attention to the topic. Maybe we have a personal reason to reflect on it. Maybe we don’t know much about the cause, but they give us an opportunity to think about it or learn something new.
At Breastfeeding Success, Breast Cancer Awareness is an especially relevant and important topic because breasts are involved! Breast health is important throughout our lives. We learn to do breast self-checks when we’re young; we might breastfeed babies and have to learn something new about breast health with that; and as we get older, we get mammograms done regularly. We are told to pay attention to family history of breast cancer and stay on high alert for changes in our breast tissue. It’s a disease that affects approximately 1 in 8 women in the United States. We have about a 13% chance of developing it. That’s not a small enough number for my peace of mind. But there are some things that we can do.
Risks of Breast Cancer
Science is regularly discovering new things that increase our risk of getting breast cancer. For example, did you know that having one alcoholic drink per day increases your risk for breast cancer by 7-10%? And two to three alcoholic drinks a day increases breast cancer risk by 20%? Or that using hormonal methods for birth control can slightly increase risk?
Lowering Breast Cancer Risk
Science is also discovering that there are things that can lower our risks.
A moderate amount of physical activity and being at a healthy weight can lower risks. Having a diet high in fruits and vegetables and lower in red and processed meats might reduce risks. Having children can slightly lower risks, especially having multiple children and having children before the age of 30. Breastfeeding can also lower risks slightly, especially if it continues for a year or more. It might be an important and easy thing to reduce your risks by making some simple lifestyle changes.
Of course, none of these things guarantee our safety, but it’s very important to have a healthy lifestyle for cancer prevention. It can lower our chances of illness EVEN IF we have the genes for a particular disease.
I was once told by a very wise oncologist that “Our genetics may give us a loaded gun, but we don’t have to pull the trigger.” He meant that a healthy lifestyle can keep us from pulling the trigger on the disease process even when we’re genetically programmed to be at higher risk. So it’s generally agreed that getting cancer requires a combination of factors. We do have some power to control the destiny of our health.
We can also take control by being watchful, especially while breastfeeding! We can learn how to spot warning signs for things we might be more susceptible to. Whether breast cancer is part of your family’s health history or not, please consider learning how to look for early warning signs!
When we are breastfeeding, this can be especially easy, but also especially tricky. When we’re constantly using our breasts to feed a baby, it can be a lot more obvious to tell when something looks odd. It’s not typical to develop breast cancer during our reproductive years, but it can happen, so use this as an opportunity to really get to know your breasts. It can also be tricky because breastfeeding can CAUSE some breast issues that might look a little like some signs of breast cancer. When this happens, our symptoms may be dismissed as a “clogged duct” or another issue.
I have a dear friend who was breastfeeding her 7th child when she noticed a small lump in one breast. She asked her doctor and was told it was just a clogged milk duct. She ignored it until she couldn’t anymore. When her baby was around 9 months old, she went back to the doctor and received a breast cancer diagnosis. After a partial mastectomy and many months of therapy, the cancer was gone. She was told that she did not have any increased risk for future breast cancer.
After some time, she became pregnant again (with twins!). After some complications during the birth and some recovery time, she again noticed a frighteningly familiar lump in her remaining breast. She insisted on being checked for breast cancer and received another positive diagnosis. She was still in her 30s. She fought another battle, longer and harder this time, but again beat the cancer. It was a hard few years for her and for her family. She’s fortunate to have survived and to have so many healthy children, but it’s so important to take a lesson from a story like this. We need to understand the disease and take control of our breast health, even if we don’t think we’re at high risk.
Here are some things you can do:
- Know your family history.
- Do the best you can to have a healthy lifestyle.
- Learn the warning signs.
- Get to know your healthy breasts.
- Check them regularly for changes.
- See your doctor for the recommended checks and mammograms.
- Trust your intuition when something doesn’t look or feel right.
For more information on breast cancer screening and locations, visit our hospital partner sites:
Baylor Scott & White Breast Care