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Reducing the Risk of Breast Cancer: What Can One Woman Do?

Chances are pretty good that you know someone who has been affected by breast cancer. It is the most common form of cancer among women in the United States. It’s also a disease that receives international attention every October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

It is estimated that breast cancer affected approximately 230,000 women in the United States in 2011. Of these women, approximately 39,000 will die as a result of their disease. Locally, between 1999 and 2006, the incidence of breast cancer decreased in Hampshire County and fluctuated in Franklin County.

Given these sobering statistics, identifying women at increased risk for developing breast cancer is of utmost importance. The question becomes: How do we do that?

The first step is to become familiar with lifestyle choices that might increase a woman’s risk of developing the disease. The second step is to recognize what are called “born in” traits that carry a higher risk for breast cancer development.

Through awareness, women can take their health into their own hands, recognizing opportunities for change that may impact not only how well they live, but also how long.

There are two basic categories into which breast cancer risk is divided: one includes factors that can be changed; the second includes those that cannot be changed. Understanding those factors is the first step in decreasing your risk.

Having identified this plethora of factors, what actions might reduce a woman’s risk?

• Be aware that healthy lifestyle choices can impact a woman’s potential of developing breast cancer;

• Exercise to improve your energy levels and your well-being;

• Establish a relationship with a primary care physician who acts as a resource for information;

• Talk to your doctor about screening mammography.

Here are risk factors that you can control:

Modifiable risk factors — those that can be changed — are often associated with lifestyle choices, such as weight and diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, use of estrogen agents, and the choice to bear children or not.

Studies suggest that moderate exercise for three to five hours per week reduces breast cancer risk by approximately 40 percent in post-menopausal women.

A woman with an appropriate weight for her height and a lower body mass index may have less circulating estrogen and be less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than those who are overweight.

Reproductive history and exposure to estrogen is related to breast cancer risk. Women who have never been pregnant have a slightly greater risk of developing breast cancer than those who have been pregnant. Why is this? Over her lifetime, a woman who has been pregnant has had less exposure to estrogen compared to a woman who has never been pregnant.

What about the risk factors that cannot be modified? These include genetics/family history, age, race/ethnicity, a need for a breast biopsy, and the age of a first menstrual period or menses.

A woman who has a mother or sister with breast cancer carries an increased risk of breast cancer. However, hereditary breast cancer, linked to BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, is exceedingly rare, even for those who have a strong family history.

Age is relevant. Older women have an increased risk when compared to younger women, due to longer estrogen exposure.

Women whose menses began early have a slightly increased risk, as this also represents greater estrogen exposure.

Lindsay Rockwell is a medical oncologist/hematologist at Northampton Oncology Hematology Associates.

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In 1992, Susan Cummings was a 47-year-old, struggling actress in New York City when she was diagnosed with early- stage breast cancer. The story that Cummings, now of Bernardston, tells in her new book, “Adventures of a One-Breasted Woman: Reclaiming My Moxie After Cancer,” begins in a medical center where she has just had a mammogram. The technician peeks in …

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