Beyond the Pink Ribbon

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

This is the month of pink ribbons and charity walks. I love the enthusiasm and the solidarity but I just somehow feel we are missing the point of this whole campaign.

It’s more than just about turning October pink.

Can we truly say we are anywhere closer to being really aware of breast cancer? Are we better informed? And more importantly, what can we do to prevent it?

I considered myself generally well-informed on health issues and yet I made startling discoveries after my own diagnosis in 2009. This is what I found out and I hope in some small way it contributes towards your awareness of breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Awareness – What are we really aware of?

  •  Breast cancer can be triggered by hormones. The female hormone estrogen promotes the growth of breast cancer cells in some women. I was diagnosed with a hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer which was triggered by high levels of estrogen in the body.

Having the first baby after the age of 35 increases the risk of breast cancer. Partly due to celebrities who made it trendy and acceptable for motherhood to start in their 40s. Women are now having children later and later in life concentrating on building a career first or other economic or social reasons without knowing of the breast cancer risk involved. I had my first child at the age of 36.

  •  Early onset of menstruation in girls below the age of 11 and for women who have a late menopause is another risk factor. The longer one is exposed to the hormone estrogen, the higher the risk. Early age at menarche has been consistently associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

 Obesity Fat in the body feeds the hormone estrogen. Obesity is associated with increased risk of different types of cancers including breast cancer.

  • Adopting a Western diet. An Asian woman who switches to a Western diet increases her risk of breast cancer by 60%. “I definitely think women in Asia should be cautious about embracing a Western diet,” Marilyn Tseng, Associate Professor in the Division of Population Science at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and co-author of this study.

The Asian diet comprise mainly of vegetables, grains and plant based proteins. Dairy products are hardly present as most Asians are lactose intolerant. When I moved to Finland, there was a clear shift in my dietary habits. Meats, sausages, ham, cheese, milk, chocolates, ice-cream, desserts, pasta and pizza started to creep into my diet more and more either from eating at friends and family’s or eating out simply because these foods were just more readily available.

  • Multi-vitamins and breast cancer. Most of us pop these supplements thinking we are doing a favour to our health and bodies. This report shows otherwise. I have talked to several nutritionists and doctors concerning this issue. It should be noted that the multi-vitamins in question are synthetic supplements.

Red meats, alchohol and dairy consumption linked to breast cancer. Women who ate more than 1 1/2 servings of red meat per day were twice as likely to develop hormone related breast cancer than those who ate less than three servings per week, in a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine Drinking alchohol is directly linked to breast cancer. Even low level consumption of alchohol increases the risk.

Studies have yet to prove conclusively that a high consumption of dairy products is linked to breast cancer but it has been suggested that the saturated fat content, the presence of bovine hormones which promote breast tumours and pesticides and contaminants which are potentially carcinogenic could be risk factors.

  • Stress. Researchers have discovered and confirmed that stress stimulates both cancer cell growth and migration in breast cancer.

Sleep deprivation linked to aggressive breast cancer. Published in the August 2012 issue of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, the study found that women who reported six hours or less of sleep per night on average had higher tumour recurrence scores. A strong immune system is crucial to ward off cancer. Sleep is nature’s way of healing and strengthening the body.

  • Vitamin D deficiency and breast cancer. Research has found a clear association between exposure to sunlight and breast cancer. The ultraviolet portion of sunlight stimulates the body to produce Vitamin D which protects from breast cancer.

Exercise lowers breast cancer risk. Exercising 4 or more hours per week may decrease hormone levels and the risk of breast cancer.

  • Monthly self-examination. Yes, after all’s been said and done, please remember to palpate and check yourself a few days after your periods every month. That was how I discovered mine when I did.

I wish I had known what I know now so that I could have made certain lifestyle changes then. But it is my hope that by reading this today, you will make the necessary changes in your own life and in the lives of your loved ones.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Neither is it meant to alarm you if you had ticked off more than one category above. I believe it is a series of high risk factors which we engage in that ultimately tips the balance of good health and puts the woman at risk. I have since made some major changes in my lifestyle and dietary intake. I juice daily. I have stopped taking all dairy. I try to keep to a vegetarian steamed diet, though I sometimes have small quantities of fish and chicken. I have cut out sugar and desserts. I try to exercise outdoors at least an hour every day. I am learning to breathe deeply. I try to go to bed by 11pm. I am back to my ideal weight.

If there is one thing I can leave with you today from all my research and reading it is this: Breast cancer is preventable.

Further reading. Nature’s Cancer Fighting Foods, A Cancer Battle Plan, The Gerson Institute

Please note: This article is not meant to substitute any medical advice given by qualified physicians nor does it claim to be a prescription for any medication or medical treatment.