The fear of breast cancer
Can living a healthier lifestyle reduce your risk?
If you have a fear of breast cancer, whether that’s because you have a history of it in the family, have had it before, have a potential symptom that you’re worried about, or are simply concerned that it could happen to you, wouldn’t it be great to know what you could do to help yourself?
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, my doctor told me that many of his patients, upon hearing the devastating news, tried to pinpoint what they ‘did’ to give themselves cancer. That is an understandable response when the fear of breast cancer suddenly turns into reality.
“If they could blame themselves for what they did ‘wrong,’ it seemed to give them a sense of control over their body again—the body that failed them by developing cancer for no apparent reason,” he said.
However, I completely threw out his advice of avoiding self-recrimination after I finished my year of treatment. After the ordeal of chemo, surgery and radiotherapy, wondering whether I could be to blame was hard to avoid as the very real fear of recurrence or even secondary breast cancer began to take hold.
I became obsessed with doing all the ‘right things’ – whatever I perceived them to be – in order to reassure myself that I could in some way prevent the disease. The problem was figuring out exactly what were the right and wrong lifestyle choices to make.
Should I for example, eliminate red meat from my diet? What about preservatives? Should I take more exercise? But, wait! I know someone who has smoked like a fiend and eaten junk food for years, who hasn’t had cancer and isn’t worried about the possibility of it developing. Meanwhile I, the health nut, who juiced every morning and exercised like it was my career, got cancer. So what can I believe? Do our lifestyle choices have any bearing on getting cancer or not?
After talking with Gregg Orloff, Ph.D., who has developed an award-winning website on the biology of cancer (www.cancerquest.org), it seems to me that lifestyle choices do and don’t contribute to cancer, which doesn’t exactly help to quash my fear if I’m honest.
“Of all the environmental and behavioural factors that have been investigated for cancer, only a few have shown a clear link,” Orloff says. “It’s difficult to make hard and fast conclusions about certain activities and their impact on cancer because studies to date haven’t involved a large enough population, or haven’t been conducted for long enough to offer anything definite. The data simply doesn’t exist at this point.”
So what can we do to help ourselves? If you’re living with a fear of breast cancer take note, the following factors have been known to have an associated risk of cancer:
- Smoking and second-hand smoke is connected to almost all cancers
- Sun damage —UV rays have been proven to cause skin cancer
- Diet and obesity carries an increased risk of breast and colon cancers. Certain diets can alter the level of growth factors and nutrients (proteins, lipids, sugars) in the blood which, in turn, can stimulate normal cells to become cancerous, or cause existing cancer cells to grow
- Alcohol causes stress on the body, affecting cells’ ability to repair themselves and making it more likely that we will absorb carcinogens
On the other hand, there appear to be certain behaviours that might help reduce your risk or fear of breast cancer.
- Exercise has been shown to have positive physical and mental benefits
- Diet: a well-balanced diet with fruits, vegetables and nuts is also beneficial. Specifically, foods that contain antioxidants, such as leafy green and cruciferous vegetables.
The bottom line
“There’s no holy grail that promises if you do this set of behaviours, you won’t get cancer,” concludes Orloff. It seems all we can do to limit our risks is to adopt a healthy lifestyle and not let the fear of breast cancer consume us unnecessarily.
The charity Cancer Research UK has more information on the causes of cancer and lifestyle choices that can reduce your risk.