Can lifestyle changes prevent breast cancer?

Can lifestyle changes prevent breast cancer?

“I still can’t believe I have breast cancer.” That’s what my sister Debbie told me following her diagnosis. Debbie, 58, had a mastectomy in late September 2013 after several months of aggressive chemotherapy to shrink the large tumor in her right breast.

Debbie’s diagnosis shocked everyone who knows her. She is one of the healthiest, most athletic women I know, a college Kodak All-American athlete and a National Senior Games gold medal winner. But she approached her cancer diagnosis the way she approaches everything else — with a “do-what-it-takes-to-win” attitude.

That attitude paid off. In October — appropriately National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — Debbie’s pathology report after her mastectomy found no cancer in any lymph nodes or nearby breast tissue. It was a high-five moment for our entire family. But her journey — and for that matter, the journey all of us face — doesn’t stop there. What can women do to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer and to reduce our risk in general?

A USA Today article said focusing on lifestyle is key. Its recommendations include:

  • Limit alcohol
  • Use caution when considering hormone replacement therapy
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week
  • Eat a healthy diet

In the article, University of Michigan breast cancer expert Sofia D. Merajver, M.D., said food is a “buffer.” “It can protect us or hurt us, depending on what we eat.”

She recommends limiting alcohol to no more than three or four drinks a week and eating five servings of vegetables a day (preferably leafy greens and cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cabbage), along with lean protein. She said taking vitamin D is important, too, and that’s backed up by a new study by the Women’s Health Initiative. Researchers found that postmenopausal breast cancer patients who took multivitamins with minerals were less likely to die from cancer.

In addition to diet, exercise is also crucial. The American Cancer Society quotes a study that found “increases in physical activity after menopause lowered breast cancer risk by 10 percent.”

Don A. Stevens, M.D., medical oncologist with Norton Cancer Institute, told me the information from these new studies is encouraging. “It’s interesting and adds to a growing body of data that nutrition and exercise are important,” he said.

Personally, I will arm myself with breast cancer awareness and knowledge and work hard to prevent cancer. I will have an annual mammogram, and, considering my family history, use other diagnostic tools if warranted. And I will share all of this with you and my sister. Breast cancer is not a death sentence. We can beat it and maybe we can even prevent it.

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