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Risk factors for breast cancer


October is the month of breast cancer awareness. According to the Center of Disease control, cancer is the second leading cause of death after heart diseases. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer afflicting women worldwide and accounts for 25 percent of all cancers. Every year around 40,000 women die of breast cancer in the US. Our modern life style puts us on a high risk for breast cancer. Although great efforts in terms of money and scientific labor has been put into the breast cancer, many of us are unaware of the life style risk factors. Breast cancer has a genetic component and BRCA genes has been linked. Woman with family history of breast cancer or BRCA positive gene are at a higher risk. The good news is- the role of genes in breast cancer is only 6 percent, and the rest being environmental, which can be modified.

Breast cancer is unheard of, or very rare in traditional and hunter gatherer societies.  Breast cancer is a systemic disease, it affects multiple organ system. Many times, by the time the diagnosis is made, it is too late. The best hope to fight breast cancer to avoid its risks.  Young women need to be aware of the lifestyle that can put them on risk for breast cancer. One important fact about life style risks is that no single factor alone contributes to the cancer. There are multiple risks- some which we know of, and some which we don’t. All the risks factors are cumulative, and, when a certain threshold is crossed, cancer is triggered. But the threshold may differ among people depending on our genes and environment. Here are some of the important risks factors related to lifestyle and environment:

Smoking & Alcohol: Tobacco is a mammary carcinogen. Woman who smoke tobacco, or exposed to second hand smoke has a higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who do not. Exposure to tobacco smoke at a younger age s even more harmful.  Alcohol is also bad news for breast cancer. Alcohol increases estrogen level and may lead to breast cancer. Even one or two drinks a day raises the relative risk of breast cancer. The more alcohol one drinks alcohol the higher the risk. It is thus prudent to limit the alcohol drink to a minimum, and only reserved for social occasions.

Night light: Human are designed to be exposed to light during day and dark at night. But with the advent of artificial light, especially the use of computers and smart phones has increased our exposure to night light. Night light exposure inhibits the release of melatonin the powerful antioxidants, and disrupt the circadian rhythm in the body.  In one study nurses working at night shift had a much higher rate of breast cancer than those working day shift. Shift work and night work in general is hazardous to the health. Follow good sleep habits, and stay away from all screen light two hours before going to bed.
Low vitamin D levels: Vitamin D deficiency is becoming rampant worldwide. We spend most of our time indoors, working with our computers. Even when people are outdoors, they put sunscreen which blocks the UV-B lights essential for vitamin D formation. We can get vitamin D from the diet, but it is more difficult and one must have a high intake of animal derived saturated fats. Vitamin D also acts as a hormone in the body and can kill cancer cells. Low levels of vitamin D has been found in breast cancer patients. Lack of vitamin D also increases the risk of infection, inflammations, and tumors. Fortunately, it is easy to measure the level in the blood through lab test, and one can take vitamin D supplements to boost their level. Low vitamin D levels carries a high risk for breast cancer. Nest time, you visit your doctor, ask for the D level checked, and if low, spend more time in sun, and take vitamin D supplements.

Delaying Family Planning: Many female, as they strive to reach their full educational, earning, and creative potential- are delaying having children. This is good for population control, good for women empowerment, good for the economy; but bad for individual health. Women delaying having children are at a higher risk for breast cancer. Also, women who do not breast feed their children increase their odds for breast cancer. Most breast cancers begin at the cells lining the milk ducts. Breast feeding is protective factor for breast cancer. The longer the lactation is done, more the protection it provides. In traditional societies, where women give birth to multiple children, and then breast feeding them for multiple years, breast cancer is rarely seen. Conceiving children early may not be a practical option, but much of the risk can be reduced by breast feeding your baby for at least one full year.

Sleep, Diet & Exercise: Sleep is a great healer, and body does bulk of its repair mechanisms like killing carcinogens, infections during sleep. Try to get 8 hours of sleep every night. Tea is protective against cancer. Green tea has been linked to a decreased risk of breast cancer. Vegetables from the brassica family like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage lowers the risk. Exercise is beneficial for all aspects of health. Lack of exercise and obesity show a higher incidence of breast cancer.

Environmental toxins:  We have many chemicals in our environment because of industrial process. In general, most of the preservatives, pesticides, herbicides, food colors, additives, cleaning products are harmful for human health. Contact with them should be minimal. Most of the food sold in grocery stores are full of hormones, antibiotics, and preservatives. Try to get your food local and seasonal. Choose organic whenever available and affordable. Cosmetic products are another problem as chemicals applied directly to the skin tends to get absorbed in the body. Unfortunately, many of the harmful chemicals banned in Europe, continues to be used in American products. Some of these chemicals work like estrogen in the body and disrupt the endocrine functions. Another danger is the increasing use of plastic in all products from drinking water to food to packages. Bisphosphonate A found in plastics products tends to accumulate in the body, and is a potential risk factor for breast cancer. Fortunately, awareness against the dangers of chemicals is rising, and more natural and organic substitutes are coming to the market.

In the end, our health is in our hands. All diseases have a genetic and environmental role. For breast cancer, environment plays a bigger role than the genes. Even if you have genetic risks, your DNA is not your destiny. Follow a healthy lifestyle and reduce your exposure from environmental toxins. Mammogram, early screening, and treatment are helpful. But prevention is the best. And avoiding the risk factors of breast cancer is the best way to prevent breast cancer.


Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD, ABIHM, ABPN, FAPA – is an American Board certified – Child, Adolescent, and Adult psychiatrist. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine. He is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He holds adjunct faculty position at Emory University School of Medicine; University of Georgia & Georgia Regents University, and University of Central Florida School of Medicine. He is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta.

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