Women in their fifties and sixties are all different. Some still enjoy their work; others can’t wait to retire. Some are happily raising children or grandchildren; others are delighted to finally have an empty nest. But no matter her circumstances, every woman is facing the changes in her body that aging brings.
Our society prizes youth. TV ads market all sorts of products that claim to stave off the effects of aging, but if a product works at all, its effects will be temporary. So we just as well accept aging as a good thing. Our wrinkles are there because we have smiled, and laughed, and cried.
Aging affects our breasts too, and while we can’t turn back the clock and get back our perky, youthful bust line, there are things we can do for better breast health. Here are some issues that may affect you.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT). One way women try to remain young is by taking hormone replacement therapy when they enter menopause. These drugs can be wonderful for women whose ovaries are removed well before their normal age for menopause, but taking estrogen longer than your body needs it can increase your risk for breast cancer. If horrible hot flashes or other uncomfortable menopausal changes are making you miserable, and if you want to try HRT, take the lowest dose possible for the shortest amount of time. Talk with your doctor about the drawbacks and benefits for you given your breast cancer risk factors.
Dry skin. Your skin is probably drier all over your body, but the sensitive skin on your breasts and nipples may suffer more. Your skin is actually thinner in old age, so you may experience itching or sensitivity to products that used to cause you no trouble. Some medications or health conditions like diabetes can make the problem worse.
What can you do about this? Water Water is great to hydrate your skin from the inside, so drink plenty. However, it could be the culprit if you are getting too much of it on your outside. Now that you are older, you may not need to bathe as often. If you are having trouble with itchy nipples, switch to a mild cleanser for sensitive skin, and experiment with not soaping your breasts every time you shower. Use warm, not hot, water, and don’t soak for too long. If you swim, be sure to rinse off afterwards. Use a mild lotion for dry skin after your bath. Dryness is normal, but if you develop a scaly rash on one nipple, call the doctor to make sure you don’t have a form of breast cancer called Paget’s Disease of the Breast.
Breast tenderness. The hormonal fluctuations of menopause may make your breasts more tender. You probably were used to tender breasts the week before your period, but now with irregular periods or no periods, it can be hard to evaluate the significance of breast tenderness. Knowing that it is a normal part of menopause may be all you need to reassure you. However, if the problem is mainly in one breast, or if it progresses to the point of pain, you will want to let your doctor know about it.
Breast lumps. As you age, your breasts become less dense, so you may now notice lumpiness that has always been there that you couldn’t feel before. Those annoying hormonal fluctuations may lead to more breast cysts, which are harmless fluid-filled lumps. You also are now in the age range when breast cancer is more common, so you can’t ignore any new lump that you find.
The good news is that this loss of breast density makes mammograms more accurate. You may have been following the controversy about how frequently women should have mammograms, but most of that controversy is about younger women. The research clearly shows the benefits of mammography for women in their fifties and sixties.
Breast Cancer. The two main risk factors for breast cancer are gender and age. If you are a woman in her fifties or sixties, you have to be proactive about breast cancer. You must get your mammograms on the schedule you and your doctor agree is best for you. Between mammograms you need to pay attention to breast changes and see your doctor promptly about any you observe. Of course, you want to have lumps evaluated, but you also need to look for swelling and changes in the color or texture of your breasts. Call right away if you have any of these issues.
You will want to keep your risk in perspective. Seven out of eight women will never develop breast cancer, and many of the one in eight who do will have used hormone replacement therapy for an extended time, will have smoked or used alcohol, have a strong family history of breast cancer, or have some other known risk factor.
Suppose you do have some of the above risk factors? What can you do besides worry? Evidence is mounting with each new study that exercise can reduce the risk of an initial breast cancer and the risk of a recurrence in a woman who has previously had it. A French study of 59,000 post-menopausal women found that those who engaged in four hours a week of physical activity had 10% less invasive breast cancer than those who didn’t exercise. The type of exercise didn’t matter. Walking worked as well as more vigorous exercise.
So it turns out that most of what you need to do to keep your breasts healthy is what your doctor is urging you to do to keep the rest of you fit. Stay well-hydrated. Take care of your skin. Don’t smoke. If you drink, do so in moderation. Exercise. Pay attention to your body and call the doctor if you see unusual changes.
You have come through all sorts of joys and challenges. Your body bears witness to each accomplishment. Love every wrinkle!
Breast Changes During Your Life That Are Not Cancer. National Cancer Institute. March 25, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/screening/understanding-breast-changes/page4 August 18, 2014.
Postmenopausal breast cancer risk decreases rapidly after starting regular physical activity. American Association for Cancer Research. August 11, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.aacr.org/Newsroom/Pages/News-Release-Detail.aspx?ItemID=580#.U_HoHBawiqQ August 18, 2014.Skin Care and Aging. National Institutes of Health. April 27, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/skin-care-and-aging#dryskin August 18, 2014.
Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) survivor diagnosed in 1998. She has written about cancer for HealthCentral since 2007. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)© organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. Phyllis attends conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. She tweets at @mrsphjohnson.