Pink Ribbon Warriors

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among African American women — and their most common cause of cancer death. But here are tips for reducing your risk and winning the fight.

Since 1985, the month of October has become known throughout the United States as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this annual health campaign, charities, hospitals, retailers and others commit to raising funds earmarked for programs that aim at discovering a cause and a cure for breast cancer. Many of these programs also focus on helping women learn what they can do to minimize their risk of ever developing breast cancer in the first place.

Which would you rather do—reduce your risk for breast cancer or race around hoping for a cure? Most women, quite sensibly, would rather reduce their risk for breast cancer as much as possible.  So what can you do to reduce your risk?  Well, there are at least six strategies that are known and proven to reduce the risk for breast cancer:  exercise regularly, maintain ideal body weight, avoid smoking, avoid alcohol, avoid oral contraceptives, and avoid hormone replacement therapy. Let’s take them one at a time. But before we dive into them, let’s first take a look at some important breast cancer facts as they relate to African American women.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among African American women and is the second most common cause of cancer death among African American women right behind lung cancer.

In addition, Breastcancer.org reveals on its website that while white women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than African American women, breast cancer is more common in African American women than white women in those under the age of 45. Research also indicates that Asian, Hispanic, and Native-American women have a lower risk of developing and dying from breast cancer than African American women. So, why is breast cancer so much more common — and deadly — among African American females?

Scientists are not certain why this is the case. Early studies suggested that African American women have, on average, fewer healthcare resources at their disposal. But further analysis shows that there is a distinctly more lethal form of breast cancer stalking black women. Until doctors can figure out precisely what is causing this different pattern of breast cancer in African American women, it just makes for them to use every means available to reduce their risk for breast cancer. So, while early diagnosis and treatment are important for improving survival from breast cancer, it is a wiser strategy to try to prevent the disease in the first place. And this leads us to the above-mentioned strategies.

Exercise, Exercise, Exercise

Moderate exercise, defined as 30 minutes of brisk walking four times per week, reduces the risk for breast cancer by 30 to 50 percent. A pair of tennis shoes is all you need. No pills; just walk! And if you are a breast cancer survivor, the same amount of exercise can reduce your risk of death by 50 percent. As far as I’m concerned, every woman newly diagnosed with breast cancer ought to be given a brand new pair of tennis shoes and told to use them regularly!

Find Your Fighting Weight

Maintaining ideal body weight is also important. Simply put, it is a matter of keeping extra body fat to a minimum. The reason this is beneficial is that estrogen — which is known to increase the risk for breast cancer — is manufactured in fat cells. So the more fat you carry around, the more estrogen you make. By maintaining ideal body weight, you reduce the amount of circulating estrogen and that will reduce your risk for breast cancer. Here’s a link you can use to calculate your ideal body weight.

Where There’s Smoke …

Steer clear of cigarettes because smoking definitely increases the risk for breast cancer; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  And it most definitely increases the risk of death from breast cancer in those women who do smoke. Although doctors haven’t quite figured out why smoking increases the risk of death in women with breast cancer, there is no doubt that it does.

Rethink That Drink

For reasons that are not entirely clear, but may be related to elevated estrogen levels associated with alcohol intake, drinking increases a woman’s risk for breast cancer. Even half a glass of wine per day increases one’s risk. I know, cardiologists are proclaiming the heart-healthy benefits of drinking red wine, but alcohol increases your risk for breast cancer. So I recommend women steer clear of it.

Other Risk Factors

Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy are also known to increase the risk for breast cancer. As a matter of fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared them to be Group I carcinogens, which are substances or agents that are known to cause cancer in humans in 2007, as compared to other WHO categories in which the cancer link is either questionable to yet to be confirmed. Although the FDA has not yet included the WHO analysis in the package inserts for these medications, it would be wise to avoid the use of oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy if you want to reduce your risk for breast cancer.

The Good News

Now, here’s some very good news: the world’s first preventive breast cancer vaccine was developed at the Cleveland Clinic in 2010 and is awaiting funding to begin clinical trials to see if it is safe for use in women.  It is a very promising discovery, for the vaccine was 100 percent effective in preventing breast cancer in three different animal studies. The results were vetted by a panel of experts and published in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine in May 2010. The scientist who created the vaccine, Professor Vincent Tuohy, received the Cleveland Clinic’s Sonnes Innovation in Medicine Award that same year, and this year the vaccine has become the centerpiece of the Cleveland Clinic’s fund-raising efforts, a mark of the Clinic’s endorsement of Tuohy’s work.

In addition to this amazing development, Drs. Beatriz Pogo and James Holland, scientists working at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, have found a virus that appears to be involved in 40-75 percent of breast cancer. They presented their results to the annual meeting of the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in 2006–a very tough and demanding crowd of breast cancer experts. In fact, Pogo and Holland are just one step away from proving this virus causes breast cancer in women. Both of these areas of research, the virus and the vaccine, are now our best hope for ending breast cancer worldwide … just like we ended small pox and are ending polio.

But in the meantime, exercise regularly and maintain ideal body weight. And don’t drink alcohol, smoke, use oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy. Though nothing can guarantee you won’t get breast cancer, you’ll reduce your risk and be healthier for it.

Resources for the Fight

Visit the following websites for additional information and resources:

1.    National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp/screenings.htm
This is a government program created to help low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women gain access to breast cancer screenings and diagnostic services.

2.    Sisters Network Inc. (SNI)
http://www.sistersnetworkinc.org/index.html
SNI is a national organization that strives to educate African American women around the country about breast cancer, as well as provide support to survivors. Visit the website to locate a chapter near you.

3.    Are You Dense Inc.
http://www.areyoudense.org
Formed to educate the public about dense breast tissue, this organization espouses the value of adding screening ultrasounds to mammograms to increase detection of breast cancer. It also has a government relations affiliate, Are You Dense Advocacy, which aims at helping more women have access to an early breast cancer diagnosis and helps them find out what their state is doing to facilitate this. – By Shelley Bacote

 

About the author, Dr. Kathleen T. Ruddy

Dr. Kathleen T. Ruddy is a breast cancer surgeon and the founder and medical director of the Breast Service at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, New Jersey. She also is the founder and president of Breast Health and Healing, her private practice in New Jersey, and the executive director of the Breast Health and Healing Foundation.