According to statistics from the National Cancer Registry, the top five cancers affecting women in South Africa are breast, cervical, colorectal, uterine and lung cancers.
While cervical cancer is the deadliest, breast cancer is the most common cancer among South African women, which is why October is dedicated to raising breast cancer awareness.
A major health threat
Data from the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) states that approximately 19.4 million women aged 15 years and older are at-risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Addressing this growing epidemic requires early detection and treatment, yet many women avoid regularly screenings due to fears of finding something wrong.
A regular self-examination is also a good idea because it will make you more aware should something change or seem out of place. If you are unsure how to do a self breast exam then make a note to ask your doctor at your next appointment.
Not just in your genes
Many women also seem to believe that because their mothers didn’t have breast cancer they won’t get it either. This, however, is not the case.
While cancer risk is generally higher for those with a family history of the disease, Professor Michael Herbst, Head of Health at CANSA cautions that many people wrongly believe that cancer is hereditary.
“Except in children where cancer is largely caused by genetic predisposition, scientific evidence shows that this is not the case. Rather, lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise, as well as the avoidance of carcinogens – cancer-causing agents – play a vital role in lowering the risk for cancer.”
Additional risk factors include an early abnormal breast biopsy or if you had early onset menstruation (before the age 12) or you menstruate after the age of 55. You are also more at risk of developing breast cancer if you are obese or you consume a large amount of alcohol.
Weight a key factor
Maintaining a healthy weight through exercise and a balanced, calorie-controlled diet is touted by most experts as the most important aspect to reducing cancer risk and is support by science.
An evidence-based review of available research on breast cancer published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) affirmed that regular physical activity and avoiding weight gain are the most important lifestyle factors in reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence and potential death.
Another key finding was that women who are overweight or obese at diagnosis also have poorer prognoses.
Prof. Herbst states that maintaining a healthy weight may assist in lowering the risk of various types of cancer, including breast cancer.
“Be as lean as possible within the normal range of your body weight. CANSA recommends maintaining or achieving a healthy weight, which is considered at a Body Mass Index of 18.5 to 24.9.”
Exercise to the rescue
Co-authors of the review, Dr. Ellen Warner from the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada, and Julia Hamer from the medical oncology and hematology division at the Odette Cancer Center in Toronto, wrote: “Of all lifestyle factors, physical activity has the most robust effect on breast cancer outcomes.“
The researchers defined physical activity as a half hour of moderate-intensity exercise performed five days a week, or 75 minutes of more vigorous exercise in conjunction with two to three sessions of strength training for large muscle groups.
With regard to the other important factor – a woman’s weight – the authors found that “weight gain of more than 10% body weight after a breast cancer diagnosis increases breast cancer mortality and all-cause mortality.”
Research conducted at the University of Minnesota has also shown how “exercise seems to change the way your body handles estrogen, which often fuels breast cancer,” according to study co-author Mindy Kurzer, PhD.
“Nearly 30 studies have shown that women who exercise at a moderate to vigorous level for three to four hours per week reduce their risk by 30-40%,” she explained.
Focus on diet
While both physical activity and a healthy weight also improve glucose metabolism and immune response – key factors in the fight against cancer – it’s not just the gym where you can make significant inroads in the fight against cancer.
The kitchen is the primary battleground according to nutritional consultant Vanessa Ascencao.
“The nutritional aspect of cancer prevention and treatment makes a huge difference, however it is often neglected. The fact of the matter is that a great deal of what we eat today is packed full of carcinogens and is often devoid of nutrients.”
Experts generally agree that a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the ideal way to reduce your risk of cancer as these food sources contain cancer-fighting nutrients like beta-carotene, lycopene, and vitamins C and E.
“Eat foods that are as close to their natural states as possible, with lots of colour. Fruit and vegetables are also the body’s best source of important antioxidants, which help to reduce the damage that cancer-causing free radicals,” explains Ascencao.
Supporting this advice, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health also linked vegetable consumption to a lower risk of oestrogen receptor (ER)-negative breast cancer, an aggressive type of cancer that isn’t fuelled by hormones.
In addition, a Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School study revealed that women with higher blood levels of carotenoids, which are micronutrients found in fruits and vegetables, also had a lower risk of ER-negative cancer.
Ascencao also advises using super-nutrients like Spirulina to compensate for the lack of nutrients in modern day diets, and Salverstrols – naturally occurring plant-derived phytonutrients that help to suppress and kill diseased cells through an enzymatic process.
“It is important to supplement with products like these as these compounds are lost through modern farming practices with the use of pesticides and insecticides, which means we rarely get them from our diets. Supplements like Curcumin also help to decrease inflammation.”
6 tips for better breast health
Nicole Sherwin. Founder, Eco Diva Natural, believes that breast cancer awareness and early detection stem from a focus on self-care.
“With self-care comes the ability to be healthier, more present and more aware of others and the environment. This means consciously choosing your life’s experiences and more kindness to self and others.”
And breast health should play an important role in every woman’s daily health regimen because breasts should be treasured and revered as the magical artworks of nature, continues Sherwin.
“They are the givers of life, the feminine silhouette and the protection of our precious hearts. So how are you taking care of yours?”
She shares her six top tips for better breast health this Breast Cancer Awareness Month:
- Skin: Choose natural, healing skincare and personal care products
- Gut: Eat for health. Choose foods that support your health rather than deplete your health. Foods that are rich in phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals (fruits and veggies)
- Mind: Be mindful. Become conscious of what you are choosing, what thoughts you are creating and how you are feeling
- Supplement: Choose vitamins and minerals to supplement your diet if you feel you need extra support. Supplements like Omegas, vitamin B, vitamin E, spirulina, chlorella and Tissue Salts. All these help to support overall health, that includes breast health from the inside out.
- Love: Choose to love your breasts, no matter their shape and size. They are yours and they are yours to love or hate. Choose love. Show your breasts how much you love them by performing regular checks (feeling for lumps), gently massage your underarms and breasts with healing body oil or body butter to feed the skin from the outside in.
- Seek advice: Visit your preferred health care professional if you have any doubts or questions. Seeking early detection also means prevention and makes it easier to heal, than if left unattended for years to build up in the breast tissue. Always be mindful of holistic solutions. Integrative solutions are best for per[pH]ect balance.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.