October - breast cancer awareness month

 The cause of breast cancer is unknown. However, as with many other cancers, when considering causes it's probably down to a combination of factors.  There are, however,  a number of known risk factors, which broadly fall into the following categories -

  • Age 
  • History of previous cancer
  • Hormonal - high oestrogen exposure
  • Lifestyle issues - alcohol and smoking
  • Genetic factors

Age - 8 out of 10 breast cancers occur in women over 50.

A previous history of  cancer or other dense tissue breast disease, or radiotherapy to the chest wall will also increase the risk.

Hormonal factors  - such as taking combined  HRT over 50, or the contraceptive pill over many years are known to increase the risk; although the latter is  reduced once stopped. It seems that having a baby over 40 significantly increases the cancer risk. Although never having a baby is also a risk factor. It also seems that breast  feeding for less than a year is a risk factor.

Lifestyle issues - smoking heavily, particularly from a young age is a risk factor for all cancers. Drinking 2 units of alcohol per day reduces the function of the liver which helps to break down oestrogen, which in turn increases the breast cancer risk. Being overweight is also a risk factor as, in women over 50, oestrogen is stored in body fat, which increases the breast cancer risk

Genetic - it is thought that only 5-10% of breast cancers have a genetic link.

So that's some of the numbers crunching and the background. However, what I'm really interested in is what can be done to reduce your risks. I suppose it stands to reason that diet, exercise and keeping to your optimum weight will go some way to reducing the risk. (More about dietary issues in a forth coming blog.) Of course stopping smoking and cutting down on alcohol will also reduce the risks. Over the years early detection has been shown to improve the overall prognosis and allows for early intervention and treatment. Regular self examination has been recommended for years now and here in the UK we have a routine mammogram screening service which, especially if you're over 50, is well worth taking part in.

Breast cancer and more importantly it's prevention is an important issue facing women. For those, however, who have developed the disease some  new treatments have emerged over the years which has improved the prognosis for many. Also, in the UK we have an amazing organisation called MacMillan Cancer Support - a UK charity that aims to improve and  support the lives of cancer patients and their families. In addition to providing specialist nurses, the organisation acts on many other levels. It has a research arm and also provides on-line and telephone support for issues such as welfare benefits. In addition there is also  a campaigning and fund raising arm, with an established and diverse range of corporate partners, such as Boots, M&S, Simple and NPower. Here in the UK we've just had a frantic coffee morning fund raiser that has raised thousands. I can't imagine that there was anyone out there who wasn't involved in something.

So take heart as there's lots of help out there and much that we can do for our selves to keep us empowered, fit and well.

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