What You Really Need to Know about Breast Cancer

By , SparkPeople Blogger
For decades, October has been recognized as National Breast Cancer Awareness month. This is the time of year when the familiar pink ribbons and, in more recent years, pink in general becomes more prevalent in our communities and in the media. Why does breast cancer awareness get so much attention?

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in females worldwide.  In the United States, breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths in women (after skin cancer) and is the number one cause of death in women ages 40 to 59. What this means for you is that most of you either know someone directly or indirectly affected by this potentially life-threatening disease. In fact, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, according to government statistics

The Importance of Early Detection

Before we learn about what you can do to protect yourself against breast cancer, I want to stress the importance of early detection. How to prevent breast cancer will be the focus of many discussions regarding breast cancer this month, but despite your best intentions and lifestyle modifications, you or a loved one may still develop the disease.  

Many of the most significant risk factors for developing breast cancer are not in your control: family history, sex and age. I want you to understand that if you have these risk factors, you are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer but that the presence of risk factors will not predict if you will get breast cancer. The best weapon that we have in this fight so far is early detection.  

Thanks to early detection, many women go on to live long lives. Do monthly self-exams and get your screening mammograms. Screening mammograms typically start at age 50, but some women may need to start earlier based on medical or family history. Please check with your physician by age 40 to determine your screening requirements, as it will be different for every woman. Early detection is crucial to survival. In my opinion, every discussion about breast cancer needs to start with this critical reminder. 

Now that we have some very important business out of the way (early detection, self-exams, mammograms!) we can discuss some of the risk factors from breast cancer and what you can do to modify your risk of developing the disease.

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

What are some of the risk factors for breast cancer? There are many proposed risk factors, some more strongly associated than others. Many of the risk factors are non-modifiable (meaning that you have no control over them) and others are modifiable. Please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website for more information

Risk factors for breast cancer (from the CDC):
  • Age and sex
  • Early first menstrual period (before age 12)
  • Late menopause (after age 55)
  • Older age at birth of first child
  • Never giving birth
  • Not breastfeeding
  • Personal history of breast cancer or some non-cancerous breast disease
  • Family history of breast cancer (mother, sister, daughter)
  • Treatment with radiation therapy to the breast/chest
  • Being overweight (increases risk for breast cancer after menopause)
  • Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy (estrogen and progesterone combined)
  • Changes in the breast cancer-related genes BRCA1 or BRCA2
  • Using birth control pills, also called oral contraceptives (traditionally older formulations that contain much higher levels of estrogen)
  • Drinking alcohol (more than 1 drink per day)
  • Not getting regular exercise
Again, it is important to note that even if you do not have one or more risk factors for breast cancer you might develop the disease. Many of these risk factors can be used to identify people who are at increased risk for developing breast cancer and are not used for predicting who will get the disease.  

What Can You Do?

What are some of risk factors that you control, at least to some extent? Diet and exercise are two very important factors that you can control. What these two risk factors have in common is that they are linked by the hormone estrogen. 

How does estrogen play a role in breast cancer? Excess estrogen has been implicated in the development of breast cancer. In women, the more ovulatory menstrual cycles in her lifetime the more exposure to estrogen she has. But, did you know that fat actually produces estrogen, as well? As they age, obese women, and especially obese postmenopausal women, have an increased risk of breast cancer.  This is likely due to the excess fat, which increases estrogen exposure. Estrogen levels do decline with menopause, but if you are obese, you are still producing excess estrogen through your excess fat cells. 

What about hormone replacement therapy? If possible discontinue or use short-term hormone therapy. Speak to your physician about the risk versus benefits of continued use of hormone replacement therapy and your risk of breast cancer.
What about exercise and breast cancer prevention? Exercise is very important, as well. Women who exercise have a lower risk of breast cancer, a correlation that is possibly due to exercise decreasing estrogen levels. Women who exercise tend to have lower BMIs and, therefore, less fat for excess estrogen production. Excess fat stored on your body can produce excess estrogen which can increase your risk for breast (and other) cancers.

Does alcohol use play a role in developing breast cancer? Yes, moderate alcohol use (more than one drink per day) has been identified as a risk factor in the development of breast cancer. 

The information presented here can be overwhelming for those who are just  learning about breast cancer. I always aim to teach so I will give you a few points that I really want you to take home:
  1. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month.
  2. Early detection is critical for survival, so do your monthly self-exams and get your mammograms!
  3. Obesity in women (especially post-menopausal women) increases the risk of breast cancer.
  4. Excess body fat produces excess estrogen, which increases your risk of breast (and other cancers)!
  5. Exercise decreases estrogen levels, which can decrease your risk of breast cancer.  
I hope you will start or continuing doing your self-exams and scheduling your mammograms! Doctor's orders! 

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Thanks! Report
RCLYKE 11/13/2020
Know all I need to know beat it 11 years ago due to early detection. Get your Mammogram Report
RYCGIRL 7/8/2020
thx Report
CECELW 6/2/2020
I haven't been checked in years Report
Thank you Report
Thank you Report
Thank you Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
This is so important, SparkFriend and everyone has a need to know these and more. Report
Yes, I get my annual mammograms Report
Ladies ... I got yearly mammograms too... but I didn’t work on my exercise as much, to reduce the body fat and thus.. reduce inflammation and estrogen. I have cancer now. Get busy and excercise! Lose that weight!! Don’t be like me!! Report
Yes, I get my yearly mamo Report
You motivated me to make the appointment for my mamo Report
I try for an annual mammogram, but it usually ends up being every year and a half or so. I think I will take up the Valentine's Day annual appt. suggestion. I was engaged on V-Day 32 years ago and it seems a great way to honor my long marriage and 5 children with yet another commitment to good health and smart choices! Report
Interesting! Thank you...there were some things I didn't know before. Report
Great Blog! Report
I do self examinations and every other year I get every other year, decided recently to get it done every three years. Report
October 1,1981 I was treated for breast cancer.Here I am thirty years later.I was given the gift of the ordinary life that is extraordinary.Survival for me has been my secret for so long.When bills roll in and challenges appear as oppositional to the best of my ability I realize my gift.
I am happy to read the comments here.Please find a charitalbe solution for mammograms.In America this does exist for the unemployed and begin by searching out recovery programs and radiologists that do perform mammograms free of charge.
Obeisity is a risk factor for breast cancer so fight for your life sensibly.Fill your body with fresh air and good food.Move it to your heart's content!Love, love, love yourself and others. THIRTY YEARS PEOPLE! Report
My sister just finished up radiation after a lumpectomy in June - it was found during her regular screening and very small. we're going to do the sister stroll for cancer in a couple of weeks and I have to be very diligent now. Report
Have lost too many beautiful souls. Keep up with the latest information girls!

I really wish more light was shed on the fact that men can develop breast cancer as well. Without an increase focus on breast cancer for both sexes, men will continue to see this as only a female disease and not seek treatment. 1 in 200 men develop breast cancer. Instead of just stating the statistics for women, please include those for men as well. Report
Thanks, Dr. Birdie! A great and helpful blog. Report
Great article. Thank you. Report
I'm not old enough for regulary mamograms, but I do the monthly exams. I have a reminder set on my phone for the same date every month. Report
other items which have been shown to help people such as vitamins like selenium and foods brocolli or cauliflower which all help your body build an immune system to keep healthy. The best book I've read is AntiCancer. Book by physician who found a multi-prong approach to help basically 1) physical exercise 2)right nutrition 3) managing stress better and 4) avoiding contaminants on 'youtube Anticancer_a new way of life ' Anticancer a new way of life ONLY 7 min and 25 sec and if you have an hour you can watch the lecture at Univ of CA at San Francisco more of his videos are on youtube titled 'Natural Defenses in Preventing and Treating Cancer' by UCTV
Dr. David Servan-Schreiber 58 min published by Univ of California San Francisco

Why meditation helps? MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, was developed back in 1979 or so by Harvard Med to help people learn a completely secular meditation as research found meditation/ handling stress was a viable trait in those who survived cancer. This method is now taught all over in fact in 2005 Google had Jon Kabat-Zinn give a lecture which is free here to show how secular this coping method is and how available to anyone youtube Mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn to help them which the Google Jolly Good Fellow express at beginning of lecture .. Report
I read Dr,Mercola's page often & have signed onto his webpage. I get my mammogram every year on Valentine's Day,that way I dont forget. There are resources available where women can receive free mammograms. Call your counties or hospitals in your area. Report
I used to get a mammogram, once a year, but now due to my age, they call me, every two years, and yes, I do check myself for lumps. good blog... Report
I had my one and only mammogram in 2003, at the age of 39. I had stage 2 breast cancer at that time, and had a bilateral mastectomy and I chose not to have reconstruction. Unfortunately, my cancer returned in 2007, in the form of bone mets. I have been in treatment for it ever since then and have been on chemo again since April of last year.

I think it's great to spread awareness, but those of us with metastatic breast cancer feel kind of left out in October; our form of breast cancer is not curable. Report
Thank you for a great article. There is some debate on when mammograms should be started. The American Cancer Society recommends beginning screening mammograms at age 40 unless you have a first degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) that has had breast cancer. In that case, they recommend that you begin screening 10 years prior to the age of your relatives age at diagnosis. Report
Not understanding why late menopause would be a risk for breast cancer. I am 51 and still not in menopause. Do I need to be worried. Report
I'm a firm believer in the importance of testing: too many people in my life have suffered with this disease. I pessimistically think my time will come but I hope to find it early and fight like hell! Report
Had the girls squished last week, saw a small change on the computer screen when tech had last year and this year up. Got the call from my primary to come in so we could discuss results. He feels no lumps, I feel no lumps, am seeing surgeon on Tuesday to schedule biopsy. My risk factors are age, female, weight, no pregnancies, no breastfeeding. Although there is no family history of BC, my dad had colon cancer, and I have been told that puts me at risk for breast, ovarian, and colon cancers. Report
Love the article and all of the contributions. We can't be too well informed Report
I was told in February that I have/had stage zero DCIS cancer. I had my surgery and finished radiation in June. Get those Mammos Ladies I am convinced it saved my life. Its been a very rocky time for me but I know that early detection is the key and even though I am now at high risk I am here to enjoy my life. Thanks Dr Birdie. Report
The girls get their picture taken once a year in February nowadays. It's like a birthday present for my son; I keep taking care of myself, and he gets to keep his Mama. :-) Report
To all my sisters with breast cancer: FIGHT LIKE A GIRL.
I have had mammograms since my mother was diagnosed about 23 years ago. At first every other year, and then eventually it was an annual event after I had a biopsy 19 years ago. That one was negative. Mammograms have come a long ways since then. I had my annual check a few days after my birthday last month. [a good way to remember to get it done is schedule it your birthday month.] The following week, I got the call that I needed to be rechecked with the more sophisticated equipment. The same day, I was told I needed a core needle biopsy. Again, I had to travel further from home to where the special equipment was available. That was done the following week and I was subsequently diagnosed with Stage ZERO DCIS - the very earliest form of breast cancer. They are diagnosing a lot of this these days. I am told five to ten years before a lump can be identified. I had my out-patient surgical removal of the area and 1 cm. of tissue in all directions from it. The surgery was done with assistance of mammography. The pathologist has since confirmed that they got all of it. Nine days post-op and I have no exercise restrictions. I will have follow up next week. My insurance premiums have limited our lifestyle, but I am thankful that we made the decision to maintain those premiums and give up some travel.

I read that 35% of cancers are missed with mammograms. I breastfed four of my children, so I think my risk is very low. Report
I am so glad you got this information out. I just hope that people follow through every other month than Oct!
I have seen proof that breast cancer can hit even people that do everything right.
I have participated in both the 3 Day Walk for Breast Cancer and the Race for the Cure (go to my page and check out the pink ribbon tattoo...)
Cancer is stupid, so go feel yourselves up....or have someone do it for you! Report
Thanks, Dr. Birdie, for posting this. I learned some things today about estrogen that I never knew. Report
Yet another reason we should be encouraging mothers to breastfeed! Use those boobies for the reason they were originally put on our chests!! Report
Don't forget that women aren't the only ones who can get it. Men do get breast cancer as well. Good informative article. Thanks! Report
Great info! I didn't know a lot of it

I do not get mammograms yet, as I am not old enough. Since my mother had it, I will get tested when I am 35.
I occasionally will do self-exams. Report
Great Blog thank you so much for sharing, I wish some of my friends would of taken better care of themselves. Report
I am proof of early detection! 20 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I found/felt the mass myself. Get a mammogram, do self exams, there are groups that will help/or sponsor you for a free one. As Nike says "just do it"!
So admire Dr. Birdie. Saw her on TV and that is why I joined spark People in the first place. Keep her on staff, please Report
There are ways to beat cancer and prevent it. Not sure why these are not promoted more.

1. Reduce your sugar consumption! Cancer feeds and thrives on it!!!!
2. Get more vitamin D! 30% of cancer deaths might be prevented each year by getting enough of this vitamin.
3. Exercise regularly!
4. Get high-quality animal-based omega-3 fats!
5. Eat fresh and organic vegetables!
6. Reduce your stress!
7. Maintain an ideal body weight!
8. Get enough sleep!
9. Reduce environmental toxins!
10. Reduce your use of cell phones and other wireless technologies!
11. Boil, poach, or steam your foods!
12. Avoid artificial sweeteners!

For the full article, visit www.mercola.com , article archive for September 29, 2011 - Is This Simple Sugar a Major Factor in the Failure on the War on Cancer?

For more health news and advice to take control of your health visit:

There's a local doctor in my area who swears that wearing bras is the cause for breast cancer. I thought it seemed a little way out (and being that I'm a 34G there's no way in h*ll I'm going braless), so I was glad to see that wasn't a recommendation here. Report
I am a BRCA-1 gene carrier, and I learned this back in May 2011. My mom and I share it, my sister did not get it. My mom has had two bouts of Breast Cancer, this last one they did a double mastectomy with reconstruction. Our area (Grand Rapids MI) has a mobile mammogram that does low income mamms for women. Perhaps other areas do this as well. If nothing else, go volunteer for Komen, meet some amazing women and learn how they can help! You don't have to have cancer for Susan G Komen to help out! Love the article! Report
I also thought smoking can be a risk factor, very informative! Report
I wish that I could continue with my mammograms, but nearly 2 years into unemployment with no health insurance, I just can't do it now. Report