October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is a time to reflect on the inspiring stories of women being treating for breast cancer, and those who have survived. In the United States, a woman born today has about a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime. More than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors are living in the United States.
While we support the women who bravely face breast cancer treatments, we should also promote the prevention of breast cancer from a very early age. We hope that our daughters and granddaughters will not have to worry that they will be among the 1 in 8 women affected by breast cancer.
How do we prevent breast cancer? Graham A. Colditz, MD, DrPH, Associate Director of Prevention and Control at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center in Washington University School of Medicine, has devoted many years answering that question. Research shows us that the earlier we begin cancer prevention efforts, the better. Beginning at age two (or less), healthful habits involving diet and exercise are critical. A “healthy diet” includes meals rich in whole grains, vegetables, nuts and fruits. Lean protein such as fish and chicken are recommended, and processed meats, such as bologna or cured ham and bacon, should be avoided. Daily physical exercise for children is essential. Children can walk more, and spend time after school running, jumping rope, dancing and riding bikes. Following these simple guidelines from early childhood through adolescence can reduce cancer risk by up to 70 percent, according to Dr. Coldtiz. In contrast, waiting until we are middle-aged adults to begin healthy habits may only reduce breast cancer risk by 50 percent.
Research also shows that we should encourage our young women to avoid alcohol, as that will increase their risk for breast cancer. In fact, drinking alcohol is associated with an increased risk of not only breast cancer, but also cancer of the liver, colon, mouth and throat.
So, these simple recommendations to eat a plant-based diet, be physically active each day, and avoid alcohol can help our girls avoid breast cancer in later life.
Cancer prevention is a collaborative effort. Schools need to contribute by providing healthful meals to our children, and by offering consistent physical activity throughout the school year. Let’s take a common sense approach to school lunches, and offer our children fresh, unprocessed vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and lean protein. Our local governments should offer playgrounds and sidewalks that encourage physical activity. Parents may need to be educated as to the importance of providing healthful meals at home. Public service announcements and health clinics can offer valuable information regarding a healthful diet and the need for physical exercise.
Harmful chemicals in our household cleaners. personal care products and cosmetics are also of great concern. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as BPA, parabens and phthalates, have received some attention in the media lately. In its report on endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that these chemicals are potential risk factors for breast cancer, and have an even more significant effect on children and adolescents, compared to adults. In addition, the WHO raised the concern that rising rates of obesity and type-2 diabetes may also be associated with the endocrine-disrupting chemicals. And obesity is a risk factor for breast cancer, as well.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine issued a joint statement in 2013, calling for action to reduce exposure to toxic environmental agents, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These highly respected medical associations warned that the reproductive health of women and men is profoundly affected by these chemicals.
What can be done to prevent the harm done by the endocrine-disrupting chemicals? First of all, we need to commit to studying EDCs more consistently and rigorously, with transparent methods of assessing these chemicals. Also, governments should encourage and support collaboration among scientists around the world, to share information and develop strategies for the identification and elimination of harmful chemicals.
In October, men and women alike give generously to raise funds for breast cancer research, with a stated goal of ending breast cancer. Did you know that only 7 percentof all breast cancer research projects undertaken by the National Institutes of Health is devoted to research focusing on prevention?
Pink is a lovely color. In the month of October, wouldn’t it be wonderful to associate pink with healthy, cancer-free girls and women? As mothers, wives, sisters, friends — we can strive to motivate all segments of society: adults and children, members of the media and medical community, government, industry, and advocacy groups, to contribute to a healthier environment, a more vibrant society and ultimately, to a world without cancer.
Let’s give our children the tools they need to live stronger, healthier lives, and empower them to prevent cancer.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October. To read all posts in the series, visit here.