October is Breast Health Awareness Month. This is the month that the pink ribbons come out, breasts are touted, and cancer-survivor stories are shared. Very amazing, for sure. But, as a naturopathic doctor, I like to emphasize that every month is Breast Health Awareness month. Our lady-friends, after all, are with us every day, for better or worse. Our job is to maximize the “better” and to minimize the “worse.” The following is not so much a “to-do list” for keeping your breasts healthy. Rather, it is a discussion focused on attempting to understand how to prevent the worst from happening.
There are several issues one might have with her breasts (although guys should pay attention, too!), but none has received as much attention or has been feared as much as breast cancer. This is because it seems like everyone knows at least one person who has been diagnosed with this type of cancer. But, thanks to organizations like the American Cancer Society, websites like the Breast Health Project and women (and men) all around the world who’ve shared their experiences, there is a plethora of information about how we can keep our breasts healthy as best we can.
The first thing we have to ask is WHY some people get this type of cancer and some don’t. The truth is, as long as we have breast tissue, we are at risk. And, we can rightly say this about any type of cancer. Research has isolated a few genes that make some individuals more susceptible to developing certain types of cancers, but other studies have shown that we have some control over which genes lay dormant and which get turned on.
The cells we were born with are not the cells that we have today. Cells are constantly dying and regenerating. It is the regenerating process that we want to optimize. And, we can do this in several ways:
1. Our immune system. Believe it or not, during the regenerating process of cells, a million things can go awry. Think about all of the different formations a DNA sequence has to get into to make a perfect cell. In reality, the odds of generating a cancerous cell are pretty common. It is our immune system that steps in and gets rid of these defective cells. This is why the risk of developing many cancers increases as you get older; our immune system gets tired.
2. The amount of estrogen we have circulating in our bodies. Estrogen is a very important hormone in both women and men. However, it has been found that an imbalance in this hormone has a specific effect on breast tissue. And, the longer estrogen circulates in your body, the more susceptible you are to developing breast cancer. Obviously, since women have more estrogen than men, there is more of a chance of them developing this type of cancer. However, other factors, such as using HRT (hormone replacement therapy) after menopause, being exposed to xenoestrogens (compounds that mimic the biological estrogens and that are found in plastics, non-organic meats, and beauty products, to mention a few) and being overweight can all contribute to an increase of estrogen circulation.
3. Free radicals. This is one of those things that make people say, “Yeah, but everything causes cancer…” Or, “Well, my grandparents smoked since they were 13 and lived ‘til they were in their 90s.” This may be true. But, there have been numerous studies that have confirmed that constant exposure to free radicals increases your chances of your cells going haywire during their regeneration process, making them more likely to become cancerous. It is a fact. So, why risk it? Also, free radicals are not formed elements from the outside world that make their way into your body. They are formed inside your body by exposure to certain stresses (such as smoke, charred meat, air pollutants, and stress itself).
So, what does this have to do with breast health? Everything. For one, it is what you do on a daily basis that will ultimately determine your overall health. It is about optimizing your health and being consistent. Secondly, it is generally good to establish a baseline of what is “normal” for your breasts. Do monthly self-breast exams, so that you get used to how they feel. This way, if there is a change, you will notice it and be able to follow up accordingly. The majority of breast cancers are found by patients, themselves, and by their partners. Make it fun. Get to know your boobs!
Finally, know that cancer is a very complex condition and is very rarely caused by a single risk factor. This means that if you ever have been diagnosed with any type of cancer, you should not blame yourself for what you think you might have done or not done. What is important is to learn as much as possible about what you can do to protect yourself on a daily basis. Ask your naturopath about simple diet and lifestyle changes that can dramatically lower your risk or chances of recurrence.