It is impossible not to be touched by breast cancer in some way—even if you have never had it yourself. You may have held the hand of a friend undergoing chemotherapy or made a meal for a family with a sick mom. Many of us have put on our pink and walked to raise money to fight the disease. But few of us escape the harsh reality that breast cancer threatens women we love.
What can we do? Is there any way to arm yourself against this killer? Actually, yes. New research studies have shown that while not every woman can escape a breast cancer diagnosis, there are several things you can do to reduce your risk:
1. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Diet has a major influence on many cancers, including breast cancer. The better your diet, the lower your risk, so head to the edges of the grocery store, where you can load up on fruits and vegetables.
Also, aim to eat foods with fewer ingredients. One ingredient is best (for instance, fresh grapes, peppers, unsalted nuts, skim milk, or orange juice).
2. Strap on a pedometer. Even if you don't like to exercise, wear a pedometer and see how many steps you take in a day. The goal for active, healthy people is 10,000 steps a day (which is about 5 miles, depending on how much ground you cover with each step). Challenge yourself to see how close you are to meeting the recommended guidelines.
3. Drink more water. The next time a waiter hands you a wine list at your favorite restaurant, say, "No, thanks. I'll have water." Yes, alcohol is touted as potentially helpful in preventing stroke or heart disease. But women who drink alcohol regularly, even if they don't drink large quantities, may have an increased risk of breast cancer. So make water your beverage of choice.
4. Listen to your body. Your body talks to you in many ways. What is it saying? Doctors can't hear it, and only you know your body intimately. So if you think there is a problem, tell your doctor what your body is saying. If you are worried, your doctor should be, too. Whether it's a lump or a bump, a new pain that won't go away, or a loss of appetite—whatever it is—talk to your doctor about it.
Doing all of these things can significantly reduce your risk of breast cancer, but doing all of them doesn't guarantee you won't hear the words, "You have cancer."
However, if you receive a breast cancer diagnosis, keep this statistic in mind: The vast majority (studies indicate approximately 90 percent or more) of women with early-stage breast cancer will have at least a 10-year disease-free survival rate.
The treatments for people with later-stage breast cancer are improving, too, and the prognosis is getting better and better. But the disease is still a major threat to our lives, so keep walking in fundraisers (with your pedometer on!) and wearing your pink ribbons and bracelets. There are still more of our sisters to save.
Julie Silver, M.D., is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of many books, including the award-winning book from the American Cancer Society, What Helped Get Me Through: Cancer Survivors Share Wisdom and Hope. In addition to being a physician, Dr. Silver is a breast cancer survivor, mother, wife, sister, and daughter.