The statistics are alarming. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and there are more than 3.1 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S. For women in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer, besides lung cancer. Over 40,000 women in the U.S. are expected to die in 2017 from breast cancer, though death rates have been decreasing since 1989. The good news is that breast cancer incidence rates in the U.S. began decreasing in the year 2000.
Given the prevalence of this disease in the U.S. and worldwide, it is crucial to arm yourself with knowledge about the warning signs, symptoms and prevention strategies.
Types of Breast Cancer
According to Dr. David Weintritt, board-certified breast surgeon and founder of the National Breast Center Foundation, there are two primary types of breast cancer:
- Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
- Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC).
Approximately 20 percent of breast cancers are noninvasive (DCIS), while the other 80 percent are invasive.
Early Warning Signs & Symptoms
When I found my lump, I was 38 years old. I didn’t do self-exams because I was “young and healthy,” and despite all of the awareness campaigns, I never thought that breast cancer would be a concern at such a young age. I rolled over in bed one morning and found a small, hard lump on my side. The tumor measured less than half an inch, about the size of a thumbnail.
This is one of the easiest warning signs to spot, but others include:
- Lump or mass in your breast.
- Enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit or unusual swelling.
- Breast pain that does not go away.
- Changes in breast size, shape, skin texture or color.
- Skin redness, irritation, or rash.
- Dimpling or puckering.
- Nipple changes or discharge.
- Scale-type skin on the breast.
- Nipple pulling to one side or a change in direction.
Aside from the obvious lump or mass, breast cancer symptoms can vary from person to person. Know your body, and don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor, push for answers and advocate for yourself if you sense something is “off.” It’s better to find something benign than to not have an aggressive breast cancer diagnosed.
Risk Factors and Causes of Breast Cancer
Risk factors are just that – risk factors. You should be aware of them and talk to your doctor about what preventative measures are best for you. Having any of these risk factors does not mean that you will develop breast cancer; the same as having an absence of these risk factors does not mean that you will not develop breast cancer.
According to MD Anderson, breast cancer risk factors may include:
- Age: While most cases occur in women 50 or older, breast cancer sometimes develops in women in their 20s
- Family history (especially mother, sister, daughter) of ovarian and/or breast cancer. Inherited susceptibility genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 account for about 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases
- Having your first period before age 12
- Beginning menopause after age 55
- If you never had children
- If you had your first child after age 30
- Use of oral contraceptives
- Use hormone therapy after menopause
- Obesity or weight gain
- Eating a diet high in saturated fats
- Not getting enough exercise
- Drinking more than one alcoholic drink a day
When I was diagnosed, I went through the entire gauntlet of tests to determine the potential cause. My doctor concluded that “lightning hit.” For the first five years after diagnosis, I agreed with her.
Over the last two years, I have decided to respectfully disagree. Yes, I was young and healthy and did not have the BRCA gene nor many of the risk factors, but we as a society area bombarded with environmental toxins on a daily basis. You never know when the switch is going to be turned on. My goal from here on out is to ensure that my body becomes (as much as possible) inhabitable to breast cancer or any other kind of cancer.
Current Methods to Treat Breast Cancer
There are so many different options to treat breast cancer, and they are getting more innovative every day! What was standard of care five or ten years ago may be outdated today. After I was diagnosed, there was a very unsettling month before my doctors finally agreed on the standard of care for my case. My markers didn’t fit neatly in a box, and the team sent my case out to their oncology colleagues around the world to weigh in on treatment options.
There are five standard treatments that your team will evaluate to determine the best standard of care for your case:
- Hormone therapy
- Targeted therapy
One surgery option is a lumpectomy or partial mastectomy where the tumor is removed, along with a margin of healthy breast tissue. Lymph nodes may or may not be removed during this procedure.
A mastectomy is when the surgeon removes one or both breasts. It is the law that if your insurance covers the surgery, they are mandated to cover the cost if you opt to have reconstruction and/or symmetry performed on your breast(s).
Radiation therapy- Uses high-energy and targeted beams to destroy cancer cells. Radiation can potentially cause damage to your heart and lungs, and the innovative treatments today minimize these risks as much as possible.
Chemotherapy – Helps to shrink and destroy the tumor and cancer cells, especially if they have metastasized and spread to other parts of your body.
Hormone therapy- Such as Tamoxifen®) may be given in pill or IV form to help prevent the future growth of breast cancer.
Targeted therapy – Such as Herceptin®) may be given to patients who are HER2 positive to help shut off this production.
Each treatment has its pros and cons in their abilities to destroy cancer, and your standard of living after treatment is over. Each treatment has a list of latent side effects. Always thoroughly discuss these options with your doctor.
For my treatment, I first had a lumpectomy, which removed between a third and a half of my breast. Next, I had four chemotherapy treatments with Taxotere and Cytoxin. Then, I had 36 radiation treatments. Finally, I was on Tamoxifen® initially for five years, and my oncologist decided to keep me on it for a total of 10 years.
Natural Treatment – A Viable Option?
There is a sixth treatment option, which is treating your breast cancer naturally and without medicine, such as Gerson Therapy. Programs such as this are not a part of standard medicine and are not backed by peer-reviewed science.
However, they do have various success stories and anecdotal reports and are increasing in popularity due to the long-term side effects that standard treatments bring. If you decide to investigate options such as this, you should always work with a proven professional (or rather, a team of professionals) that include an oncologist to track and monitor your cancer and adjust your treatment plan accordingly.
How to Prevent Breast Cancer
The best way to beat cancer is, to begin with prevention. About 85% of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer. What can you do to help prevent breast cancer and reduce your risk?
“There are so many things you can do to reduce your risk and even reduce risk of recurrence,” according to Dr. Heather Paulson, ND, FABNO, and author of Cancer Proof. “One way to reduce risk of breast cancer and risk of recurrence is to exercise for 170 minutes per week. This can be broken up into multiple sessions of exercise or done all at once.
I often recommend eating flaxseeds to my patients, since human clinic trials have shown that eating flaxseeds reduced breast cancer growth in women with biopsy proven breast cancer. Lastly, it is important to reduce your exposure to endocrine disruptors from plastics, parabens, and indoor air pollution. Some supplements that I recommend to my patients to help metabolize exogenous estrogens are broccoli extracts, calcium-d-glucerate, probiotics, and vitamin B-6.”
The following are additional ways you can help to prevent breast cancer:
- Enjoy five or more servings of fruits and vegetables which are high in antioxidants, antiestrogen, and chemopreventive properties.
- Minimize highly saturated fats such as factory-farmed beef, cheese, cream, ice-cream.
- Consume omega-3 fatty acids such as fish, legumes, and lentils.
- Reduce stress. Increased and prolonged stress can cause an inflammatory response in your body and also cause you to engage in unhealthy habits such as overeating, smoking, drinking, and not exercising.
- Practice yoga and/or meditation.
- Practice breathing exercises. stretching and breathing breaks throughout the day. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place your hands on your hips. Close your eyes. Breathe in for five counts. Hold for five counts. Breathe out for five counts.
- Have a spirit of forgiveness and gratitude. Let go of your stressors, and adopt an attitude of gratitude and forgiveness.
- Stop smoking. According to a 2013 study in the Journal of National Cancer Institute, smokers have a 24% higher risk of invasive breast cancer than non-smokers. Stop smoking. Period.
- Minimize or avoid alcohol.
- Get enough sleep. Ditch the afternoon caffeine, go to bed on time, and shut off your electronics.
- Perform self-breast exams.
Until we find a cure, the threat of breast cancer is not going away. Know your risks, know the signs, and practice preventative measures to reduce your risk.
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