September and October are the months we focus on ovarian and breast cancer, but you can be lowering your risk of these diseases all year long.
“Cancer can occur in anyone,” says Dr. Carol Saffold, a hospitalist on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Illinois. “If you are experiencing any unusual or abnormal bodily changes, whether big or small, it is important to seek help from your physician.” Saffold lists five cancer indicators:
- Breast changes. Learn what your breasts normally feel like at every stage of the month. Make a doctor’s appointment if you find a lump in your breasts, but also look for skin dimpling or puckering, inverted nipples, discharge from the nipples or any redness or scaling of your nipples or skin.
- Prolonged bloating. We all get bloated sometimes, but constant bloating can indicate ovarian cancer.
- Unusual bleeding. Both before and after menopause, unusual bleeding is a “red” flag to bring to the attention of your doctor, who can rule out endometrial cancer.
- Blood in the urine or stool. Saffold says that bleeding from an area of your body that normally doesn’t bleed can be caused by an infection or kidney stones but also can be an indicator of colon or bladder cancer.
- Excessive weight loss without trying. Sudden weight loss can be associated with pancreatic, stomach and lung cancers.
“We don’t want to be alarmist and assume that every twinge and symptom is a sign of serious disease, but we’re all busy and it’s easy to write things off and tell ourselves we’ll deal with it later,” Saffold says. “With most diseases, however, early detection can make all the difference. If you’re unsure of something, give your physician a call for advice on whether you need to take further action.”
Bright Pink, an organization that specifically targets cancer in younger women, offers to text you a monthly Breast Health Reminder to be “Breast Self Aware,” including doing a monthly self-check. To sign up, text PINK to 59227. Bright Pink also suggests these “living well” lifestyle habits to prevent breast and ovarian cancer:
- Exercise. Reduce your risk up to 20% by working out nearly every day for 30 minutes with enough intensity to get your heart rate up or break a sweat.
- Healthy diet. Many fruits and vegetables have been shown to fight cancer. Get enough fiber and vitamins A, E and especially D, cut fat and avoid red meat—research has shown a 12% increase in breast cancer risk for every 50g of red meat consumed each day.
- Limit alcohol. Studies show a 10% increase in breast cancer risk for every 10g (one standard drink) of alcohol daily.
- Don’t smoke. As with other cancers, the risk of breast and ovarian cancers is higher in smokers.
Bright Pink lists more measures you can take to help lower your risk of cancer:
- Get regular “well-woman” checks. See your doctor regularly for: a clinical breast exam to thoroughly check your breasts; a pelvic exam for your doctor to check your ovaries for anything out of the ordinary; a PAP smear for cervical cancer at least every few years; a mammogram beginning at age 40 or, if you have a family history, ten years before the age at which your youngest relative was diagnosed
- Give birth by age 30. Some studies indicate that women with first pregnancies under the age of 30 have a 40-50% lower risk of breast cancer than women who give birth later or who never get pregnant.
- Breastfeed. Nursing babies for a lifetime total of 1-2 years lowers your statistical risk for both breast and ovarian cancer.
- Consider taking birth control pills. While there may be a slight risk of breast cancer related to birth control pills, studies also show that taking oral contraceptives for five years, not necessarily consecutively, in your 20s and 30s can reduce your ovarian cancer risk by nearly half. Decide with your doctor whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
- Assess your environment. Exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation are linked to breast cancer risk. Learn which chemicals put you at risk, and determine how much exposure you have to them.
If you’re a young women at high risk for breast or ovarian because you have had a positive genetic test or cancer has affected many women in your family, you also may want to discuss chemoprevention and surgery with your doctor. Taking a drug like Tamoxifen may help you prevent cancer; women at very high risk also consider surgically removing their breasts and/or ovaries.
Information is readily available from many sources. Educate yourself about breast and ovarian cancer by signing up for emails from your local hospital or breast cancer program, and check these websites: