Breast and Ovarian Self-Awareness

Posted on
June 26, 2017

Facts:  1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime—it’s the leading cancer diagnosis among women. 1 in 75 women will develop ovarian cancer in their lifetime, and 2/3 of those diagnosed will die from their disease.

Prevention & Early Detection:  Beat those odds. When caught early, the five-year survival rate for breast and ovarian cancer can be greater than 92%.  Not only should you practice early detection strategies, but you can also actively reduce your risk by living a proactive healthy lifestyle. The power is in your hands to start practicing healthy behaviors early, so that they’ll last a lifetime.

Partner With A Medical Provider You Trust:  He or she should listen to your questions, pay attention to your concerns, and provide clear recommendations. Once you’ve “shopped around” and found a doctor you like, together you will develop a plan that is best for you. No matter which category you are re in, all women should have an annual well-woman exam as part of their comprehensive prevention plan.

Practice Breast and Ovary Self-Awareness:  Breast self-awareness is key when it comes to early detection. Everybody’s breasts are different, so it’s about getting to know the ‘normal’ look and feel of YOUR breasts, and speaking up if you notice any changes. We all have different breasts – different sizes, shapes, and with various types of lumps that may come and go. What is standard for you may not be your friend’s ‘normal’. Keep tabs on yourself to make sure your breasts are their usual size, shape, and color. Touch your breast tissue from multiple angles with varying pressure to feel both the deep and surface layers, from the interior by your ribs to just below the skin. Don’t forget that your breast tissue extends up your collarbone, around to your armpits, and into your breastbone. MEN, you have breast tissue too – and MEN can get breast cancer as well.

Don’t forget your ovaries. To be Ovarian Self-Aware, you also need to know the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer and what is normal for your body. When you know your ‘normal’, you will be more likely to notice any changes — and speak up should they occur. Symptoms of ovarian cancer are vague and often confused with digestive or menstrual complaints, so never be afraid to ask your doctor.

It also means knowing your family history (and whether it increases your risk), the signs and symptoms of cancer, and how the lifestyle decisions you make in your daily life play a role in increasing or decreasing your risk.

Know Your Family History:  Find out which relatives (on both parents’ sides) have had cancer of any kind, which types, and how old they were when diagnosed. While breast and ovarian cancer history is important, other types of cancer can also be indicators — so capture everything you can. There are three categories of risk for breast and ovarian cancer with different recommended screening and risk reduction measures.

    Average Risk:  Just by being a woman, you have a 12% chance of getting breast cancer and a 1.3% chance of getting ovarian cancer. Essentially, all women are at least at average risk. While the chance of developing cancer is smaller for women at average risk, it is important to know that this group accounts for approximately 75% of all breast and ovarian cancers that occur. You can’t exempt yourself from a proactive lifestyle just because you aren’t in the increased- or high-risk categories. Risk-reduction and early detection practices are important for all women, no matter the level of risk.

    Increased Risk:  Women of increased risk have up to a 25% chance of getting breast cancer and up to 5.5% chance of getting ovarian cancer — more than double that for average Risk. Those in this category usually have a family member with a history of breast or ovarian cancer, and sometimes more than just one relative on the same side of the family.

Knowing that you’re a woman at increased risk is an opportunity to be proactive and make decisions that can have a positive impact on your health. It’s important that women in this category develop an appropriate risk management strategy that incorporates increased or earlier screening. You may also want to consider genetic counseling if you’ve not yet taken this step.

    High Risk:  Women of high risk have up to an 87% chance of getting breast cancer and up to 54% chance of getting ovarian cancer in their lifetime. These numbers are dramatic. They illustrate why it’s so important for women who are at high risk to identify and understand their risk and collaborate with a doctor on a personalized risk management strategy.

It is critical for high-risk women in this category to start incorporating risk reduction and early detection techniques above and beyond what is needed for the other two risk levels. If you’re at high risk, in addition to consulting with your doctor we also encourage you to talk to a genetic counselor, check out and consider one-on-one support or group support if that feels right for you. Just remember that knowledge is power — you’ve got what it takes to make changes that can have a profound impact on your health.

Simple, Everyday Choices for Risk Reduction:  There are easy things we can all do to lower risk, starting with leading a healthy lifestyle. Your 20’s and 30’s are the ideal time to start adopting new habits that can reduce your lifelong risk of breast and ovarian cancer, so give the following lifestyle choices the consideration your body deserves. And these risk-reduction steps can benefit women at all risk levels. They apply to everyone! While all of these activities can help reduce your breast and ovarian cancer risk, they do not eliminate it completely.

  • Regular Exercise:  Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial — there is a clear link between obesity and breast cancer because of the excess estrogen produced by excess fatty tissue. You’ve heard it before, but we’ll tell you again: being active is key. 30 minutes of regular exercise, enough to get your heart rate up or to break a sweat, on most days may reduce your risk by as much as 10-20%. Plus, it has lots of other benefits like lowering your risk for heart disease and reducing stress.
  • Eat Well, Live Well:  Research has shown that the food you put in your body has a direct link to your health. Fill up on cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables, make sure you get all your vitamins, and avoid red meat — research has shown a 12% increase in breast cancer risk per 50g of red meat consumed on average each day.

Excess Alcohol: Cut back on cocktails. Research shows a 10% increase in breast cancer risk for every 10g of alcohol — that’s one standard drink — consumed on average each day. Limit alcohol to one drink per day or eliminate it entirely.

  • Stop Smoking:  This one is simple, for a variety of reasons! There’s a known link between tobacco and many cancers (not just lung or other oral cancers). If you do smoke, commit to quitting today.
  • Having Children and Breastfeeding:  Pregnancy transforms and stabilizes the cells that comprise milk-producing glands and ducts, so the earlier this transformation happens, the lower the risk of breast cancer. Some studies have shown that women with first pregnancies under the age of 30 have a 40-50% lower risk of breast cancer than women who gave birth later or who were never pregnant.
  • Pregnancy can also reduce your risk of ovarian cancer by eliminating ovulatory cycles and therefore the number of chances for ovarian cells to ‘go rogue’ during cell division.

If it makes sense for you, breastfeeding for 1-2 years — not necessarily consecutively — lowers your risk for both breast and ovarian cancer by decreasing estrogen levels and the number of times you’ll ovulate over the course of your life. It also may reduce a female baby’s overall risk of developing breast cancer later in her life.

  • Taking Birth Control:  In addition to preventing pregnancy, studies have shown that oral contraceptives (birth control pills) can help prevent ovarian cancer. Taking birth control pills for 5 years — even non-consecutively — in your 20s and 30s can reduce your ovarian cancer risk by nearly half.
    Studies have shown that the increased risk of breast cancer risk related to birth control pills is very low— if it exists at all —temporary, and not associated with the most common, low-dose estrogen pills. The protective benefits of birth control pills when it comes to ovarian cancer risk are greater than the very slight associated increase in breast cancer risk.
  • Environmental Factors:  The chemicals in our environment play a role in altering our biological processes. We now know that exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation are connected to our breast cancer risk. Get to know the chemicals that have been linked to breast cancer and learn about what you can do in terms of personal, corporate and political action to limit your exposure, thereby reducing your risk of breast cancer.