October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and there’s no better way to recognize the cause then by actually addressing the cause. Genes play a role in breast cancer but maintaining a healthy body weight and engaging in regular physical activity can prevent approximately 25 per cent of all cases.
Only about 5 to 10 per cent of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary or inherited from a parent. This is increasingly important in the developing world as many countries are adopting sedentary lifestyles, eating processed chemical-based foods and consuming substances of abuse such as alcohol and tobacco.
As a result, 69 per cent of all breast cancer deaths occur in developing countries, and the majority of cases are diagnosed in late stages. Lack of public health education, health care services, and cultural influences all play a significant role in the development of breast cancer.
The problem is cultures don’t really understand the role that the culture has in the development of disease. Cultural factors often have an influence on obesity, diet and physical activity trends. For example, in some cultures, being overweight is considered to be a sign of wealth and therefore being obese is a status symbol.
In such cultures, wealth could be considered a risk factor for the development of breast cancer. However, the flip side is also true, extreme poverty is also associated with an increased risk of obesity and its related conditions.
The two main reasons for this include, firstly, lack of knowledge about fitness, nutrition and how to lead a healthy lifestyle and, secondly, the higher cost of a healthy diet including fruits and vegetables.
The greatest amplifying factors of the obesity and cancer epidemics have been technological advances and trends towards urbanisation. More and more people work in ‘modern’ jobs with little physical input and access to unhealthy take-away foods.
A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found obese women to have a four fold risk of developing inflammatory breast cancer. Two-thirds to three-quarters of breast cancers occur after menopause, the time where women gain the most weight. Excess fat has been proven to raise levels of oestrogen and fuel the development of most breast cancers.
Another hormone called insulin has also been found to play a significant role in the development of breast cancer. People who are overweight can develop a condition called insulin resistance where the body is unable to use insulin and results in its over production.
Weight control through improved diet and physical activity can keep insulin and oestrogen at the right levels. How much physical activity is needed? As little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking has been found to reduce a woman’s breast cancer risk by 18 per cent.
Signs of breast cancer
Everyone’s breasts look and feel different, alter with age and at different times of the month. It’s important to lookout for changes that are unusual for you. Common signs of breast cancer include the following:
Swelling or painless lumps in breast tissue, often towards the nipple; thickening, puckering or dimpling of the skin; nipples that are tender, turned in or producing discharge; swelling underneath armpits.
It’s important to note that not all lumps are cancerous. Women will experience normal menstrual-related breast changes with their monthly cycle that includes swelling, tenderness, nipple discharge and pain.
Dr Cory Couillard is an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization’s goals of disease prevention and global health care education.