I’d grown up hearing cautionary tales about breast cancer. I knew, through at least a few degrees of separation, distant relatives and friends who had developed the disease. Eventually, I always heard that they’d gone into remission and “beat” it with the usual treatments or trendy experimental remedies. Breast cancer, so I thought through the survival stories of these warrior-like women, was not the death sentence it was so frequently made out to be. It just got a bad rap from those uncommonly rare terminal cases, though my heart still went out to the poor, unlucky few and their families, who suffered through what I could only imagine was a devastating loss.
Last summer, though, I entered what was to become my own personal crash course in breast cancer 101. My mom was diagnosed with an aggressive, rare form of breast cancer, and already at stage IV, it had spread all over. During the constant ebb and flow of her treatments, and as her condition worsened and my family was forced to adapt, I began to consider for the first time that my sister and I may be vulnerable to this disease as well.
This reality set in during an appointment with my mom. “So, now that there’s a family history, I’m just going to get it or I’m not? There’s nothing I can do?” I asked a nurse. I suspected as much, but was still shocked when she nodded and smiled apologetically. Upon my mom’s untimely death, not even a full year after her diagnosis, I was forever changed. I refused to resign myself to this unknown fate, but I wondered whether I really had a say at all. Luckily, the answer appears to be “yes.” I started researching prevention theories, and discovered that you can reduce your risk of breast cancer by 30% (one third!) through a few careful lifestyle modifications.
First things first — and try to listen to this one with fresh ears because undoubtedly you’ve heard it already — early detection really is key. I never truly understood the benefits of “catching it early,” either, but now it makes sense: finding cancer early, when tumors are smaller and more manageable, means there are more ways to successfully treat them. For years, while my Mom put off getting a mammogram, not suspecting she was at risk, her malignant tumor was growing and becoming harder to treat. By the time she was diagnosed, the cancer had essentially spread so much that it was beyond the reach of effective treatments, which is typical of late-stage cancers.
The American Cancer Society recommends regular breast exams for 20- and 30-somethings, and yearly mammograms starting at 40. While tests won’t prevent or cure cancer, successful treatment options and survival rates increase exponentially when detected in its earliest possible stage. I went ahead and booked my first mammogram this year, even if I am more than a decade early in doing so.
Not as if you need to hear it straight from the American Cancer Society, but definitely give up smoking. I happen to not smoke, so I’ve got it easy in this category. My mom didn’t smoke either, but in her case, the cancer had spread to her lungs, so I saw the increasingly debilitating effects on her respiratory system, impressing upon me how much suffering someone with lung cancer might endure. I can’t say I would ever pick up the habit after that. Still, I can relate. Like many things I’ve chosen to address much later in life, smoking may not seem like an imminent threat, especially to those young women out there who seriously dread quitting. But think of it this way –among the many health benefits of stopping smoking, you’ll also eliminate the whopping 20% higher risk of getting breast cancer you’ve been harboring along with the cigarette habit, according to BreastCancer.org. This is because cigarette smoke contains compounds called aromatic amines, which have been proven to cause breast cancer.
Researching diet tips was my most unexpected learning curve. I was already open to dramatic changes for generally healthier choices, especially if it meant reducing my breast cancer risk. I thought I knew about cancer-fighting nutrition — more vitamins, leafy greens, low-fat, high-fiber, yada, yada — but, overwhelmed by all the tips out there, I wasn’t sure what should take top priority. My mom was told by doctors that there was no harm in indulging sometimes. And why shouldn’t she? But I kept remembering intermittent stories I’d heard about women in remission after adopting strict diet plans, like going vegan, or who swore by a particular obscure supplement regimen. Open to eliminating empty calories that dragged me down anyway, I chose to stay away from what cancer experts call the “great white hazards” — white flour, white rice, white potatoes, sugar, and products containing them — which trigger hormonal changes that aggressively promote cancer cell growth in breast tissue. I also started obsessively scouring products’ ingredients information for these no-no’s, and was intrigued to read “bleached enriched flour” as one of the top three ingredients on the labels and boxes of many otherwise seemingly good-for-you foods. You’d be surprised. I was! And, honestly, I don’t miss them at all since cutting them out.
Seeing my Mom’s fight for her life changed mine. I chose to make these subtle changes to (hopefully) improve the odds for me, however, everyone’s risk factors and willingness to compromise are different. Consider this a great excuse to take better care of yourself. Do your own research, and take charge of what you can. I know I can’t completely eliminate my chances of getting breast cancer, but I can improve my quality of life in the here and now by becoming more aware and informed.