October is breast cancer awareness month and all around us we are surrounded by pink socks, shirts, hats and ribbons reminding us that this disease is very real and affects so many people each year. Breast cancer seems so common place now, I dare you to find one person that hasn’t known someone, either in their own family, a co-worker or a friend, that has had breast cancer or has been personally affected by it. I imagine that you can’t do that. Right now, I have known a friend to beat breast cancer, a another friend’s sister is fighting it now, and I have lost an aunt, and most devastatingly lost my mom to this four years ago. Having a close relative having passed from breast cancer on both sides of my family puts me into what is called the “high risk” category, which means that I have an over 20% life time risk of getting breast cancer, and my actual risk is 26.1%. How do I know this? I’ll go into that here and also want to share with your 5 things that I am doing NOW to help reduce my breast cancer risk, and encourage you to do the same.
**First I just want to preface this post by reminding people that I am NOT a doctor. Cancer education, research and recommendations are always changing and adapting, and I am but no means a professional. I write this post as a daughter who lost her mom to this terrible disease and I am sharing some facts I have learned from my own research and from appointments I have had with my own doctor. Please consult your own doctor for information that affects you personally!**
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer first at the age of 46, which is quite young. She fought it for a few years, went into remission and was cancer-free, until it returned a few years later and spread so rapidly that they couldn’t do very much. My mother wasn’t very healthy to begin with. She had smoked for as long as I could remember, and once the cancer spread to her lungs, that was it. Sometimes for a moment, I imagine what it would have been like if she hadn’t smoked, and how the outcome probably would have been different, but then I remind myself that traveling down that road is an exercise in futility, and I can’t play the “what if” game.
Losing my mom has thus far been the single most traumatic and transformative event in my life and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of her and how much I miss her. Growing up, it was just my mom and my brother and sister, so losing our mom meant losing the only parent we had, thus rendering us parentless for the rest of our lives- which, to be blunt, really sucks. My mother taught me so many things, and probably the most important one was the fact that we don’t take things lying down, and that we fight for what we want, no matter what. So when I apply that motto to this situation, I think of breast cancer as an impending war, and one that I will do absolutely anything not to have to fight. That means each and every day I make certain decisions that reduce my risk and keep me as healthy as possible.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second most common kind of cancer in women, with skin cancer being the first and about 1 in 8 women born today in the U.S. will get breast cancer at some point in their lives. That means that approximately 231,340 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.1 I don’t know about you, but those stats kind of scare me. Especially knowing that I am already at a higher risk, I don’t mess around with this. I take a very proactive approach to preventing breast cancer and know that there are certain factors that I cannot control, and certain ones that I can. Did you know that not only family history affects your chances of getting breast cancer, but also the age of your first period, the age of the birth of your first child (and whether or not you have had children or not), and if you have breastfed all play a role in your risk?? I didn’t, until I did one thing: learned my risk. That’s the first thing that you can control. Here’s that and four more things you can do to reduce your risk, right now:
Learn Your Risk
Since my mom passed away from breast cancer at such a young age, I already knew I was at a high risk, but an appointment with my doctor helped me to learn what other factors I had playing in my favor. She informed me that the more estrogen exposure you have in your body increases your risk, so if you are uniquely young when you get your first period, think around 10, then your risk increases sightly, and the older you are when you have your first child, or if you have never had children, that increases your risk slightly too. Breastfeeding also decreases your risk some too. Thankfully for me, I was good in all of these areas, and while at this point, I couldn’t have done anything to change these, knowing my risk makes it easier to understand how proactive I need to be.
This is a given for all areas of life, but is especially relevant when preventing cancer. Like I said, if my mom had made the choice not to smoke, I may have had the chance to call her right now and talk with her. Sadly, she didn’t make this choice, so I have made the choice never, ever to smoke and teach my kid to do the same.
A healthy diet is key to preventing all illnesses. Of course, you can eat nothing but kale, raspberries and grilled chicken and still develop cancer, but I know that every time I make the choice to eat right and maintain a balanced diet, I am making the choice to fuel my body with nutrients and minerals that will help keep it healthy and strong, so if anything did ever happen, I may have a better chance to fight it as well.
Exercise and Maintain a Healthy Weight
When I was assessing my risk with my doctor recently, she talked about how your height and weight also directly relate to your risk, knowing that if you are overweight you are more at risk. Thankfully I am in a healthy range, but still want to lose a few pounds, and try and make my life style a healthy and active one, walking all of the time, heading to the gym a few days a week, and being sure to run around with my kids. As I age, I know I need to stay even MORE active, since my metabolism is affected by age.
Self Check and Stay Current on Testing
Keeping yourself healthy is completely under your control and so is how proactive you are in detection. We all know that early detection is key with beating this thing. Even as the second most common cancer among women in the United States, millions of women survive breast cancer thanks in part to early detection and improvements in treatment. The goal of screening exams for breast cancer is to find cancers before they start to cause symptoms (like a lump that can be felt). Screening refers to tests and exams used to find a disease, such as cancer, in people who do not have any symptoms. Breast cancers that are found because they are causing symptoms tend to be larger and are more likely to have already spread beyond the breast. In contrast, breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast.
As I write this, the American Cancer Society just changed it’s recommendation on how old you should be to receive your first mammogram and how often you should have them. I am in the “earlier and more often” camp, especially since I am high risk. I have been recommended to receive my first mammogram next month since I turn 35 and then every year after. You should talk with your doctor about your personal recommendations, based on your risk and family history. In between medical screenings, self checks are the way to detect anything early. Always check your breasts every month and be sure to stay up to date on your annual appointments with your doctor to receive your clinical breast exam there.
Just like with breast cancer, there are things in life you can help to prevent and some you cannot. If you at any risk to contracting this disease, being prepared is key. Many women opt to have an additional cancer insurance policy, in the event that you are diagnosed. Many of these tests cost thousands of dollars and who wants to be worried about money when you are trying to fight for your life. Aflac is one company that offers Cancer Policies, in the event that you are diagnosed, to help cover treatment costs and also can provide cash for out of pocket expenses. Breast cancer patients with employer-sponsored health insurance on average can spend $6,553 out-of-pocket- an extra insurance policy can help lift this burden. If you or a family member does end up being diagnosed with breast cancer, or any cancer, you want to be able to focus on recovery not finances, and a cancer insurance policy can help you do just that. Plus, with Aflac’s recently introduced One Day Pay initiative, which allows Aflac to process, approve and pay eligible claims in just a day, you can have the cash you need in hand faster than ever before.
For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Aflac is partnering with the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) again for its second annual “This Duck Wears Pink” campaign. Aflac is selling a variety of campaign-related merchandise including the plush duck, hats and a breast cancer ribbon pin, with all the net proceeds going to the AACR for the specific purpose of funding research aimed at finding a cure for breast cancer. They support the groundbreaking work of the AACR – the first and largest cancer research organization in the world with a membership of more than 35,000 professionals residing in 101 countries working on the front lines of the effort to eradicate cancer. The AACR backs every aspect of high-quality, innovative cancer research, which is just what we need. For more information on Aflac’s cancer donations, their This Duck Wears Pink campaign, and to research and see if an additional cancer insurance policy makes sense for your family, stop by and visit their site.
Losing my mom was the worst thing ever to happen to me, and I will try like hell to prevent my kids from having to go through the same thing my siblings and I did. By taking these preventive measures by being healthy and active, knowing my risk and staying up-to-date on my screenings and self-checks, I know that I am already one step ahead of the game in reducing my breast cancer risk. Even if you haven’t lost someone close to you, I implore you to do the same, because we all know that breast cancer does not discriminate and it can happen to anyone.
What are you doing everyday to reduce your breast cancer risk?
I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.