"You have cancer."
Those three words hold so much power. They're life-altering in too many ways to measure. They're words that every women hopes they'll never have to hear.
And as a survivor who has heard those words, I'd like to be able to say that you'll never, ever have to hear them.
But there's no sure way to do that.
What I can do is tell you ways to reduce your risk—and be aware enough (or in some cases, lucky enough) that if you do get diagnosed with breast cancer, it will be found at an early stage, where it's typically more treatable.
While there are many factors that influence your breast cancer risk, there are also factors that are unknown or out of your control. But it's worthwhile to know the things that might be alterable … being proactive and taking charge of your health might be a comfort in and of itself, don't you think?
- Keep a healthy weight. Those extra pounds boost your risk. Postmenopausal women who are overweight have a higher risk than those who are normal weight. The more fat cells a woman has after menopause, the higher her blood levels of estrogen—which travels through the blood as estradiol—will be. Obese women have about three times the circulating levels of estradiol compared to lean women. Extra pounds can also increase the risk of recurrence in women who have already had breast cancer. Here's a way to assess your weight from breastcancer.org.
- Curb your alcohol. The more you drink, the higher your risk. The CDC advises limiting yourself to no more than one alcoholic drink per day.
- Move your body. Exercise definitely counts: women who are physically active have a lower risk than women who are the least physically active—up to 25 percent lower. And it also matters for women who have already been diagnosed: there's growing evidence that physically active women have a lower risk of dying of breast cancer. Try to get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each day.
- Limit CT scans where possible. Also known as CAT scans, they can expose you to way too much ionizing radiation. How? A CT scan of the abdomen exposes the body to 400 times more radiation than does an ordinary chest X-ray.
- Choose your foods wisely. Foods that have been linked in some studies with a lower risk of breast cancer include vegetables, fruit, poultry, fish and low-fat dairy.
- Get screened. When to screen? It can get confusing, since not everyone agrees on mammogram guidelines (which, as you're probably aware, are always changing). The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women begin screening at age 50 (and repeat the test every two years), while the American Cancer Society and other organizations recommend screening at age 40 (and repeat the test annually). And screening might be recommended even earlier if you're at high risk. That's why you and your doctor need to talk and decide together what's best for you. Here's a helpful fact sheet on mammograms from the National Cancer Institute.
Ironically, my birthday falls in the same month as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. So, I get to make as many wishes as I want!
My wish for you: May you never have to face a diagnosis of breast cancer. Another wish: If you do get diagnosed, may it be early and treatable. My last wish: That you do everything you can to ensure your breast health.
This post originally appeared on mysocalledmidlife.net.