October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

About one in eight American women, close to 12 percent, will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. In 2011, approximately 230,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in U.S. women, along with approximately 58,000 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer. Additionally, more than 2,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in men. Breast cancer results in close to 40,000 deaths in the United States alone, annually. While primary causes of breast cancer are genetic mutations that happen as a result of the aging process and life in general, there are a number of steps we can all take to help reduce the chance of contracting this dangerous disease.

Knowing your family history is important for understanding your risk for inheriting many genetically linked illnesses or potentially life-threatening diseases, but close to 85 percent of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer. It’s important to know your risk, to get screened appropriately, to know what’s normal for you and your body, and to make healthy lifestyle choices. You also should have a physical every year. If any unusual symptoms or changes in your breasts occur before your scheduled visit, do not hesitate to see your doctor immediately.

Here are 10 healthy lifestyle choices you can make that may reduce your risk of breast cancer:

1. Maintain a healthy weight. Gaining weight after menopause increases the risk of breast cancer. In general, weight gain of 20 pounds or more after the age of 18 may increase your risk of breast cancer. Likewise, if you have gained weight, losing weight may lower your risk of breast cancer.

2. Add exercise to your routine. Exercise pumps up the immune system and lowers estrogen levels. With as little as four hours of exercise per week, a woman can begin to lower her risk of breast cancer. Physical activity involves the energy that you release from your body. It not only burns energy (calories), but may also help lower the risk of breast cancer. This is because exercise lowers estrogen levels, fights obesity, lowers insulin levels and boosts the function of immune system cells that attack tumors.

If you have been inactive for a long time, are overweight, have a high risk of heart disease or some other chronic health problem, see your doctor before starting an exercise program. Do whatever physical activity you enjoy most and that gets you moving daily. All you need is moderate (where you break a sweat) activity like brisk walking for 30 minutes a day.

3. Maintain a healthy diet. A nutritious, low-fat diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables can help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. A high-fat diet increases the risk because fat triggers estrogen production that can fuel tumor growth.

4. Limit alcohol intake. Research has showed that having one serving of alcohol (for example, a glass of wine) each day improves your health by reducing your risk of heart attack. But many studies have also shown that alcohol intake can increase the risk of breast cancer. In general, the more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of developing breast cancer. If you drink alcohol, try to have less than one drink a day.

5. Women, limit postmenopausal hormones. For each year that combined estrogen plus progestin hormones are taken, the risk of breast cancer goes up. Once the drug is no longer taken, this risk returns to that of a woman who has never used hormones in about five to 10 years. Post-menopausal hormones also increase the risk of ovarian cancer and heart disease. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits.

6. Breastfeed, if you can. Breastfeeding protects against breast cancer, especially in pre-menopausal women. There are benefits of breastfeeding to the baby as well.

7. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. Although the link to breast cancer is not clear, you do your body a world of good by avoiding tobacco. If you do smoke, ask your doctor for help in quitting. Although there is no strong evidence that smoking causes breast cancer, smoking has been linked to many other types of cancer and diseases. There are health benefits from quitting at any age.

8. Focus on your emotional health. Researchers continue studying the relationship between our physical and emotional health, but there is conclusive evidence that people who are stronger, emotionally, are more resistant to illness and certain diseases. It is also important to keep a healthy attitude. Do things that make you happy and that bring balance to your life. Pay attention to yourself and your needs. Read books, walk in the park, have coffee with a friend. Find what works for you– many things can help you be healthier and feel better about yourself in spite of whatever is going on in your life.

9. Schedule regular mammograms.  Even though many women without a family history of breast cancer are at risk, if you have a grandmother, mother, sister, or daughter who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, this does put you in a higher risk group. Have a baseline mammogram at least five years before the age of breast cancer onset in any close relatives, or starting at age 35. See your physician at any sign of unusual symptoms.

10. Give yourself a breast self-exam at least once a month. Look for any changes in breast tissue, such as changes in size, a lump, dimpling or puckering of the breast, or a discharge from the nipple. If you discover a persistent lump in your breast or any changes in breast tissue, it is very important that you see a physician immediately. However, 8 out of 10 lumps are benign, or not cancerous.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!