New Year's Resolutions, Part I: 10 Ways to Limit Your Risk of Recurrence

Patient Expert
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"I always make New Year's resolutions, and I never keep them. Why bother?”

I'll tell you why: because the following resolutions are on a different plane from your usual vows to call your mother at least once a week, or lose 10 pounds.

This year, you’re resolving to do everything you can to help prevent a breast cancer recurrence.

You went through the long, tough treatment—slash, poison, burn—that's supposed to kill those cancer cells, ALL of them.

But is the cancer really gone? There's no way to know for sure. You're hoping if any cells are hiding out, they stay hidden.

There's no way to KNOW cancer won't come back.

Luckily, there are things you can do to help keep it at bay. And while none of these is a guarantee you'll remain cancer-free, all of them at least improve your chances.

The following 10 resolutions are common-sense steps all of us survivors can follow to limit our risk of recurrence.

1. Take your drugs. One reason that long-term hormone therapy drugs fail is that we simply don't take them, even though it’s usually suggested that you continue to take them for five years. We let our prescriptions lapse, due to expense or inertia. Or even if we have them, we let those little bottles sit at the back of the kitchen table, ignored as we down our daily multivitamin. Or we conveniently "forget" to take them, as we find the side effects disagreeable.

You want the absolutely proven benefit of these drugs? Take that pill EVERY DAY.

2. Attend follow-up doctor’s appointments. Whatever your schedule of regular appointments, you're on it for a reason: so that the doctor can ask those questions whose answers can point to a recurrence.

“Any bone pain? Does it hurt when I press your side here? Shortness of breath?”

Typically, you will have a doctor’s appointment every few months and pelvic exams annually. Your doctor may also order blood tests, imaging studies, or bone density tests.

Your doctor wants you to remain cancer-free as much as you do. Do yourself a favor—do NOT skip appointments.

3. Call your doctor immediately if you find a lump. Speaking of appointments, call and make one if you notice a new lump in your breast or—if you've had a mastectomy—any lumps or "gravelly" feeling around your incision scar, on your chest, or in your armpit.

Don't waste time worrying; just call the doctor.

4. Control your weight. Studies show that postmenopausal women whose BMI (body mass index) is greater than 30 are 1½ times more likely to have a recurrence than women at a healthier weight.

Is your BMI over 30? Use our BMI calculator to find out. If it is - visit FoodFit.com, the food and nutrition section of this Web site, for good tips and strategies to help you shed some pounds.

5. Cut back on alcohol, or avoid it entirely. Breast cancer survivors who consumed more than one drink a day—red wine, gin, beer, any kind of alcohol—have a greater risk of recurrence. This was especially true for those who had ER-positive breast cancer.

And what, exactly, is "1 drink?" 12 ounces of beer; 5 ounces of wine (about 2/3 cup); or 1.5 ounces (one shot) of hard liquor.

6. Discuss non-hormone therapies for symptoms of menopause. Consider non-hormonal treatments, such as soy products or medications such as venlafaxine, clonidine, or gabapentin to help relieve symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, or fatigue. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can increase the risk of recurrent or new breast cancer.

7. Have an annual mammogram or maybe two. Experts suggest having a mammogram six to 12 months after surgery or the end of your treatment. This serves as your new baseline mammogram. Some doctors suggest having mammograms more often than once per year. This may seem like a no-brainer, but the simple, low-cost mammogram is still the easiest and most effective way for survivors who've had a lumpectomy to detect a recurrence in the same breast.And for all of us to identify—as early as possible—a new cancer in the other breast.

8. Exercise regularly. Sigh; groan. I know, you hear it over and over again: exercise is good for you. But studies prove itexercise can help reduce the chances of a breast cancer recurrence. Several studies show a reduction of 35 to 50 percent risk of recurrence. Talk to your doctor about the best way to start incorporating exercise into your daily routine. Work with a personal trainer if it makes it easier for you to follow your exercise schedule.

9. Count those fat grams! You may be used to checking the carbs and calories of what you eat; take a look at the fat grams, too. The Women’s Health Initiative Trial found that postmenopausal women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and ate a low-fat diet were more likely to be alive 10 years after diagnosis than those who ate a diet higher in fat.

10. Meditate daily. Meditation may not reduce the risk of recurrence but it can help lower your levels of stress, distress and reduce discomfort from symptoms or side-effects of treatments, including fatigue, according to a study completed in 2016.

When I wake up in the morning, I spend just 5 minutes listening to a Reiki meditation on my iPod. It gets the day off to a great start.

With the new year just around the corner, are you willing to turn over a new leaf? If the list above seems daunting, pick just ONE of these new habits, and resolve to try it for a minimum of 1 month.

It can't hurt, right? And it could very well help you stay cancer-free. Good luck!

See more helpful articles:

Resolved: An End to Panic, Stress, and Fear

Fear of Recurrence: Where Do You Stand?

Want to Lower Your Risk of Breast Cancer Recurrence? Eat Healthy!