Risk of Breast Cancer Recurrence: Do You Get the Message?

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • There’s a saying among marketers that the typical consumer has to hear a message seven times before he or she internalizes it. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Oh sure, I hear any number of obnoxious ads on TV a whole lot more than seven times, and I didn’t really want to hear them even once!”

    But think of another kind of message: a message that’s very important to you personally, one that might, in the end, spell the difference between life and death. Would you internalize a message like that right away? Or do you need to hear it seven times? Or more?

    The message I’m talking about now is one you’ve probably been reading in women’s magazines, or hearing on talk shows, for years. Once you have cancer, you hear it again—loud and clear—from your health care professionals. Maybe, by now, it’s even sunk in. But what are you doing about this message?
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    The lead article in the January 2007 issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Letter, a publication of Harvard Medical School, is “Seven for 2007: Seven things you should know about breast cancer risk.” That title caught my eye as I cruised through Google News on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and my initial reaction was this: B-O-R-I-N-G.

    But, “just in case,” I clicked through. (Just in case they’ve decided that a diet high in ice cream lowers your risk of breast cancer? In case a recurrence is less likely if you have a glass of wine at dinner every night? Hope springs eternal!) And what I found at the Harvard site was, in fact, a general reiteration of the same message I‘ve been hearing for years. But this time, it resonated with me. I thought, “Yeah, this sounds right. It sounds good. I need to sit up and pay attention here.”

    Developmental education is based on the theory that we humans learn things when we’re ready, and not a moment before. You can pound and pound and pound on something–algebra, potty training, how to knit–but until you experience that “ah-ha!” moment, it’s not going to sink in. Please read these seven proven factors affecting breast cancer risk: you won’t know, until you do, if today marks your “ah-ha!” moment.

    1) Weight gain. The most prevalent type of breast cancer depends on estrogen to develop and grow. After menopause, when our ovaries stop producing estrogen, fat tissue takes over and converts precursors in the body into estrogen, keeping it circulating. The less fat tissue you have, the less estrogen your body will produce. Eat mindfully.

    2) Alcohol. Yes, even a few drinks a week increases your risk. Sorry, it’s been proven. Only you can decide how much that drink is worth.

    3) Lack of exercise. See 1). Exercise helps you keep your weight down. Remember: ANY exercise is better than none. You don’t need to run a marathon or go to step aerobics every day. Start by parking in the farthest reaches of the supermarket parking lot, rather than as close to the door as you can get. Take it from there.

    4) Vitamin D. Newest studies show that vitamin D may help protect you against breast cancer. Take a calcium supplement that includes vitamin D, and kill two birds with one stone: bone health, and cancer prevention.

  • 5) Hormones. Birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy for hot flashes and other menopausal woes both deserve a very close look. Is relief from hot flashes and mood swings worth increasing your cancer risk? Maybe yes; only you can decide.
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    6) Breast density. Women with dense breasts are more prone to breast cancer. Not much you can do about this one, other than ascertain if your breasts are dense, and then pay extra attention if they are. New types of mammograms, including digital mammography, may be appropriate for you; ask your doctor.

    7) Drugs. Tamoxifen and raloxifene (Arimidex, Evista, et. al.) reduce your risk for breast cancer recurrence. Your doctor isn’t just recommending these drugs to keep the pharmaceutical companies happy; they really do work. You may not tolerate them well; each comes with its own side effects, both proven, and unproven (though suggested by the hordes of women taking them who report similar effects, such as weight gain or depression). Then again, you may be lucky, and not experience any side effects at all.

    You’re probably not 100% on board with this message, right? Me, I choose to enjoy a glass of wine or a margarita every now and then. I balance that with exercise 7 days a week, and a daily dose of vitamin D. I take Arimidex. I eat steak and ice cream, and battle my weight. It boils down to this: how much is a reduction in cancer risk worth to you, when it involves making some potentially tough changes in your life? In the end, only you can decide.
Published On: January 09, 2007