October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a month dedicated to raising awareness and educating the public on the second most common type of cancer among women. It’s a cancer that certainly doesn’t discriminate, especially when it comes to age.
According to the Susan G. Komen organization, women over the age of 70 are at the highest risk of developing breast cancer. It’s estimated that they have a one in 24 chance of developing the cancer at some point in their lives. This is because as we age, our bodies aren’t able to repair the genetic and cell damage responsible for breast cancer as quickly or as easily as they once could. So, with that being said, the key to preventing breast cancer as you age is to be aware of your risks and take precautions to reduce your chances of developing the cancer.
Risk Factors You Can’t Change
There are a number of factors that can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. However, many of them are out of your control. This doesn’t mean to ignore them. It means to take note. It’s important to be cognizant of the risk factors that apply to you so you can develop a personalized plan for screening and prevention. Some of the risk factors out of your control include:
Age – One of the important things to remember is that your risk increases the older you get. This is why you can’t let your guard down. Your risk never disappears. Most breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50.
Post-menopausal – Menopause can impact your breast cancer risk. It’s been found that the age you enter menopause can contribute to your breast cancer risk. For example, a woman who enters menopause after age 55 has a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer than a woman who went through menopause earlier.
Personal or Family History – If you or a family member has a history of breast cancer or non-cancerous breast disease in addition to ovarian cancer, you are at an increased risk of developing the cancer. It’s important to know your family history to inform your doctor of this possible risk factor.
Dense Breasts – Research has shown that dense breasts are twice as likely to develop cancer than non-dense breasts. Having dense breasts isn’t a condition and isn’t considered a bad thing. It just means you have more fibrous and glandular tissue than fatty tissue. Unfortunately, dense breast tissue makes it more difficult to detect breast cancer with a mammogram. Small areas of cancer can hide behind dense tissue, making it challenging to differentiate between normal, healthy tissue, and abnormal growths.
Risk Factors You Can Change
While there may be some risk factors for breast cancer that you have zero control over, there are several you can completely control that will help to reduce your risk. Some of these include:
Lack of Physical Activity – Living a sedentary lifestyle can significantly impact your overall health and your risk for developing breast cancer. It’s important to stay active. Women who get regular exercise may lower their breast cancer risk by as much as 20 percent.
Being Overweight or Obese – This is especially true for women who have already gone through menopause. Being overweight can also increase your chances of breast cancer returning if you’ve already had the disease. Fat cells increase estrogen, which means the more fat you have, the more estrogen in your body. This becomes a risk because estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers develop and grow. Where you store your fat may also play a role, with extra fat around your belly increasing your risk as opposed to extra fat around your thighs or hips.
Drinking Alcohol – Research continues to show that drinking alcohol – wine, beer, and liquor – increases your risk for breast cancer. Alcohol can increase your estrogen, which then affects hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers. Drinking three alcoholic drinks per week can increase your risk by 15 percent. Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10 percent for each additional drink consumed each day. In addition to affecting hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers, alcohol may increase your risk of breast cancer by damaging DNA cells.
Using HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) – Hormone replacement therapy has been an effective treatment method for menopausal symptoms. However, some forms of HRT can increase your risk of breast cancer. If you have a history of breast cancer, your provider may advise against types of HRT that affect the entire body (called systemic HRT). HRT is used to replace the female hormones estrogen, progesterone, or both, that your body stops producing during menopause.
Do This to Reduce Your Risk for Breast Cancer
Our role in preventing breast cancer and diseases doesn’t stop the older we get. It actually becomes more important than ever. Take the steps to help prevent breast cancer and to reduce your risk.
Don’t stop getting mammograms! Breast cancer screenings are vital even once we get older. They can’t prevent breast cancer, but they can detect it early when the cancer is most treatable. Some recommendations say that women with no personal or family history can possibly stop receiving mammograms with age. This is an absolute NO. Women ages 55 and older should have a mammogram every two years or continue yearly screenings as recommended by their doctor. Discuss with your provider what breast cancer screening tests are best for you.
Get Moving! Physical activity is important for so many reasons. It is one of the best ways to maintain your weight and stay healthy. You don’t have to kill yourself, either. Four to seven hours of moderate-level exercise a week can help to lower your risk for breast cancer. Exercise doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym. Walking around your neighborhood and even gardening are great forms of physical activity.
Maintain a Healthy Diet. Diet and exercise go hand-in-hand. You want to make sure you’re eating a healthy and nutritious diet that is low in fat and high in vitamins and antioxidants. This will help to keep you at a healthy weight and fight off free radicals that cause damage to your cells and promote cancerous growth.
Limit Your Alcohol Consumption. Sure, many of us enjoy having an adult beverage from time to time. And we’re not saying you can’t do that. But you should try to limit your consumption to only a couple of drinks a week if you are at high risk for breast cancer.
When caught early, the survival rate for breast cancer is extremely high. Most older women who are diagnosed with breast cancer don’t die from breast cancer. They die from other causes. Be proactive and take preventative steps to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.