Thoughts on Preventing Breast Cancer.
October is the time trees let go their leaves to save strength and energy. Leaves are falling to protect its life; the tree lets go in order to live. It can hardly be a coincidence that this meaningful month in nature is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
I remember that hot summer day when I went to the beach for a swim. In my search to find a fine spot to sit for a while I encountered a topless woman. She had one breast. One side, I can’t remember which one, had a big mastectomy scar. Her breast had been amputated. The first thing I thought was, wow, she’s a brave woman. I probably would have hidden this scar for the world.
I admit I was also a little shocked when I happened to look at her and my eye was caught by her naked scar where once there had been a breast as part of her womanhood. She was a survivor. She wanted to go topless at the beach like most Spanish women, so she did. She lived. And that’s what matters. Not what I think or how I react to a missing breast. In her I saw both strength and vulnerability. I saw no fear.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer that strikes women worldwide. Men can be diagnosed with breast cancer too, but have a much smaller risk. There are over 2 million new cases in 2018 . About one in eight European women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. The same goes for American women. Currently, in the United States alone there are more than 3 million women living with breast cancer. Despite an increase of the survival rate, each year too many women lose their lives to breast cancer. This year alone about 40.000 American women are expected to die.
These are shocking figures. What can we do to prevent breast cancer?
Healthy lifestyle choices
We know it’s vital to our health that we exercise enough, especially those of us who sit at their office desks the whole day, often too tired to go to the gym or run or bike a few rounds outside once they come home from work. So it’s no surprise that being physically active is a factor that reduces the risk of developing breast cancer (or any other cancer). Every website that deals with cancer mentions this.
Healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and legumes and limiting meat, alcoholic drinks and cigarettes as much as possible, as well as a healthy weight contribute to decrease the chance of developing breast cancer (or any other cancer).
Still, healthy lifestyle choices are not crucial to reduce the risk. You can still make healthy choices and develop cancer in your body. I knew a girl who was a brilliant student and a real sports babe, physically active, running marathons, even the one in New York. She was confident, kind and relaxed. A happy young woman who was loved by many. When I and the other students were drinking beer endlessly, we always ordered a sparkling mineral water for her as she wanted to be fit the next morning. She didn’t mind drinking mineral water the whole evening. She didn’t need alcohol to party. I remember truly admiring her discipline and strength. Years later after I lost contact with her I heard through one of her friends she was severely ill. She had cancer and eventually died. She was only in her thirties. I was devastated when I heard she wasn’t alive anymore. The healthiest sports babe I knew! How was it possible? I guess, we’ll never know.
A couple of months ago I read a Dutch news article about an oncologist who linked modest alcohol use to breast cancer: having one daily alcoholic drink already increases the risk of developing breast cancer. I was astonished, I didn’t know this. I always thought it’s rather innocent to drink a glass of wine with dinner. How does it work? Breast cancer is a hormone sensitive disease. A higher level of oestrogen in the body is a significant risk and alcohol is one of the factors that raises the level of oestrogen in the blood which causes an increase of cell division in the breasts. When cell division goes wrong and becomes uncontrollable it becomes a source of cancer. Therefore the risk of alcohol in developing breast cancer increases when women have regular alcoholic drinks. Not many women are aware of this.
Wellness of mind
It’s important to have new information available about how to prevent breast cancer and to stay healthy. I certainly don’t want to trivialise the effects of alcohol (it already happens too much in our society where drinking alcohol is the norm), but still I think we are worse of when fear creeps in. I don’t say I ignore this worthwhile information based on valid research, but I feel we become too scared by these messages and too obsessed by healthy living and by controlling our lives. It creates fear which is our worst enemy. Fear of sickness, fear of death. No oncologist is talking about anxiety in our lives as one of the risks of developing (breast) cancer. No words about wellness of mind while our thoughts are essential for our mental and physical health as well. I hope more will be written about this aspect, and not only by alternative doctors, for it will give a more complete picture. Not only body, but mind as well. Of course evidence is hard, but we can’t ignore wellness of mind when it comes to our physical health. Yoga, for example, combines being physically active with a calm mind. Practising yoga and making this a habit is therefore a wise choice in taking care of yourself.
Once I had a conversation with my mother-in-law, who’s a naturopath, about my dad who I lost to leukemia almost 19 years ago. She asked me if my dad had experienced much stress in his life. I remember I answered that his life had known challenges yes, but that I had never seen him severely suffer from stress. He was a tough one, my dad. Of course it didn’t mean that he didn’t suffer from stressful experiences. Stress can cause illness yes, but I think people get cancer too, because they have bad luck. It may sound simple, in fact we all have a chance of developing cancer each day when one body cell decides to split in an uncontrollable manner.
We can do our best to minimise the risk of (breast) cancer by making healthy choices, especially with the knowledge we have today and it’s important we do so. However, it’s impossible to control everything in life. We can control much of it, but certainly not all of it is in our hands and that’s exactly what life is all about. When we frantically hold on to preventing all kinds of risks in our lives, we are driven by constant fear. And it could very well be possible that experiencing constant fear and stress in our lives is way worse a risk than having that glass of wine. So don’t worry, be healthy.
The topless woman on the beach with one breast survived her illness. This amazon warrior woman has been close to death, perhaps even looked death in the eye. Her ordeal has made her fearless of judgements. And I praise her for that. Life is too short anyway. I honour the women who have to let go in order to live, the women who survived and the women who lost their lives to breast cancer.
I honour them, the heroines of this world.