By, Janelle Boyington, RM, CPM
As the granddaughter of a survivor, as a healthcare provider for women, and as the mother of a daughter, I like so many of us am very concerned about breast cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that about one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime and that in 2013 about 39,620 mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends will die from breast cancer.
Various risk factors can increase the chances
of developing breast cancer. They can trigger mutations in DNA, which then turn on genes that speed up cell division or turn off genes that suppress tumors, causing normal cells to become cancerous. A major risk factor for breast cancer is lifetime exposure to estrogen, which is why women are at higher risk than men. A woman’s age of first pregnancy (if any) plays an important role because breast cell maturation is considered incomplete until a pregnancy is carried to term. Breast cells that have only partially matured are considered to have unstable DNA and are more easily engaged in cancer (the younger a first pregnancy, the lower the risk).
Though hereditary factors have validity, inherited genetic faults (such as BRCA-1 and BRCA-2) are only a piece of the risk factor picture. Some risk factors are out of our control, others are of human manufacture.
Organochlorines are organic compounds covalently bonded with chlorine. They have a broad range of uses in herbicides and pesticides (in growing food), chlorine bleach (used on items from coffee filters to tampons), chlorinated water (for drinking and bathing), disinfectants, plastics, and more. We have an environmental crisis in that organochlorines invade almost every aspect of our lives. They mutate genes, mimic estrogen and suppress the immune system and are considered by many to be a major factor in the current epidemic of breast cancer. Combine the dietary concerns of foods grown using organochlorines, along with the prevalence of carcinogenic trans-fatty acids in processed and fast foods. What people are eating should be cause for alarm; the changes in our foods are affecting our genes. Some of the other risk factors for breast cancer include radiation exposure (especially to the chest between the ages of 10 and 30); race and culture (white women of European descent are at higher risk); various syndromes such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome (causing mutations on tumor suppression genes); and age (with 75% of diagnosis occurring after the age of 50). Though less substantiated; additional suspected contributing risk factors include electromagnetic fields, tobacco smoke, alcohol, and the wearing of underwire or otherwise constricting bras.
Women owe it to themselves to be educated about their chances. There are several risk assessments tools such as the Gail model, or the interactive tool at the National Cancer Institute. In her ground breaking book "Breast Cancer? Breast Health!,' author Susan Weed has an extensive questionnaire that includes the widest possible range of contributing factors to breast cancer development. Her book also provides lifestyle habits for avoiding environmental factors, directions for holistic prevention, as well as lists of anti-cancer foods. Because certain foods neutralize carcinogenic compounds, they protect DNA from environmental damage and strengthen immune system cells. An organic diet high in raw fruits and vegetables providing antioxidants, carotenes, folates, selenium, along with phytochemicals and nutrients is ideal.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women receive a clinical breast exam every three years to the age of forty, and then they should be done yearly in conjunction with a mammogram. New forms of imaging such as ultrasound, MRI, and thermography, are emerging but the mammogram is still most commonly used. Women are encouraged to begin self-breast exams beginning in their twenties. Research has been analyzed to conclude that while a systematic approach to breast self-examination does play a role in finding breast cancer, an even more effective approach is one that is casual and unstressed. By touching breast tissue daily from a place of trust and curiosity during normal cleansing routines, a woman gains awareness about the normal changes to her body throughout her cycle; because of this she will also notice any differences that should continue to be tracked and possibly addressed. There is much power in simply paying attention. Live healthfully and educate yourself whenever possible.
Come to the 9Health Fair Saturday, April 20, where we will be providing Women’s Health Exams including breast and Pap screenings; available at Lyon’s High School from 7 a.m. to noon.
Janelle Boyington, RM, CPM is a midwife providing homebirths, well-woman care, and lactation services; seeing clients at Stillwater Healing Arts Clinic, here in Lyons.