October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
We are all familiar with the doctors’ advice for screenings, mammograms, and self exams that we’ve been hearing since we were young adults. And we’ve all read the news articles or seen the TV interviews explaining the link between a specific inherited mutation of the BRCA 1 and BRACA 2 gene that raises the risk of breast cancer as well as the link between having a first degree relative with a history of breast cancer and your risk of developing the disease (though, remember, the 1st degree relative risk accounts for less than 15% of newly diagnosed cancer). In fact, of all the cancers out there, breast cancer is likely the most talked about among professionals and among friends.
What is less spoken about, however, is breast cancer among older women, those 65 and older. While many of the same risks associated with younger women are still relevant, there are additional risks for aging women. According to a study produced by Harvard-affiliated researchers, approximately 50% of newly diagnosed breast cancer cases occur in women over 60 years old, and of these, nearly 20% of the new patients are over 70. And while this cancer predominately targets women (1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime), men are also at risk (1 in 1000 men will develop breast cancer).
Screenings and preventative measures are just as important, maybe even more so, in older women than in our younger counterparts. The two main advocacy groups, the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) differ on their recommendations for yearly mammograms (ACEs says start at 45, continue yearly and USPSTF says start at 50 and continue every two years through age 74). While there are differences in the timing, the message is the same: screening and identifying the cancer early is the key to surviving this cancer.
There are steps you can do to help prevent breast cancer as well.
- The same Harvard affiliated study found that women who maintain a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables had a 10% lower risk of breast cancer. Diets high in carotenoids (think the orange and yellow colored ones like carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and the dark green colored ones like spinach, turnips, kale) are protective not only for breast cancer but for many other cancers as well.
- Maintaining a healthy weight also helps prevent breast cancer. Fat-related estrogen found in overweight older women may increase your risk of breast cancer by as much as 40%. Along with a health weight, remaining physically active is important as well. As we grow older, our metabolism slows and gaining weight is more likely. Remaining active will help maintain a healthy weight which will lower your chances of getting breast cancer.
- The debate still lingers on the benefit-risk balance for hormone therapy (HT) to address menopausal symptoms. While HT does help with symptoms such as hot flashes, the risk of HT for both heart disease and breast cancer may outweigh those benefits. Long term use of HT that combines estrogen and progestin has been shown to increase the chance of developing breast cancer by 24%. The current HT guidelines advise physicians to weigh the risk for each patient and to prescribe the smallest dose of HT for the shortest amount of time possible.
- For post-menopausal women, smoking or being exposed to heavy doses of second-hand smoke can be very dangerous. Smoking raises your risk of breast cancer significantly. If you smoke, quit. Your doctor can help you with smoking cessation programs. If you live with someone who smokes, at least insist they step outdoors to light up.
As we enjoy our retirement years, we all want to do so in as healthy manner as possible. This is our time to enjoy all life has to offer. By taking care of yourself, and proactively screening for possible problems, we can expect to fully live our best lives, for a long time to come.