When I was two years old, my dad’s sister died from breast cancer. She was 42. Sixteen years later, my mom’s sister, age 50, was diagnosed. These are not my only relatives who have had breast cancer. In fact, every woman in my family, with the exception of my mother, has had breast cancer.
My dad’s sister is a “first-degree” relative. And because a woman’s risk of breast cancer nearly doubles if she has a first-degree relative diagnosed with it, I have to be very conscious about breast health.
Early Detection and Screening
My aunt was diagnosed at age 39, which led my doctor to suggest I start getting mammograms at age 29. I also do monthly self-breast exams. When she died, my aunt left behind two teenage daughters and a son. My female cousins and I have had many discussions about how we are each managing the risk. Because they are over 40 now, they both get yearly MRIs and mammograms.
We’ve talked about what we’d do if any of us found a cancerous lump. Would we consider radical mastectomy? What does early intervention mean? Even though these are very hard conversations, we all feel they are important: it’s the difference between life and death, and ignoring it or living in denial doesn’t make it go away.
Having a first-degree relative is not the only risk factor for breast cancer, but it’s one of the more serious. Women with inherited gene mutations (such as BRCA1 and BRCA2) have up to an 80% risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetime, and to be diagnosed younger. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you can be screened for these gene mutations. If they’re found, you can opt for more tests and begin to make some difficult decisions (like radical mastectomy).
When my dad went to see a geneticist, the doctor offered to test him for the BRCA genes for my benefit (and likely that of my cousins as well). Luckily, he does not have them.
In addition to monthly breast exams and early mammograms, I’ve made some lifestyle changes as well. A few years ago, I was watching an episode of Oprah that featured Kris Karr, a woman living with an untreatable form of Stage 4 cancer. Her message was simple: change your lifestyle, because the products you eat and put on your skin could be killing you. I bought her book and was riveted.
Since then, I’ve read a few more books and consciously work on eating healthier. Research shows, almost unequivocally, that a plant-based diet can actually stop or even reverse cancer growth. So I don’t eat very much meat or dairy, and I include as many fruit/vegetable options as possible in my meals. Check out the documentary Forks Over Knives if you’d like an entertaining and informative introduction to treating disease with healthy foods.
In addition to dietary changes, I’m also careful about plastics and cosmetics. Chemicals such as BPA and phthalates, which are commonly found in plastics and cosmetics such as makeup and lotions, can cause cancer. If you’d like to learn more about plastics, I recommend the documentary Bag It. The last part of the film is dedicated specifically to cosmetics and plastics we use in everyday life—it’s really eye opening. Wondering what’s in your lotion? Search this database to find out what’s in your cosmetics.
Breast cancer is an incredibly pervasive disease that has touched most of our lives: if not personally, through a friend or a family member. It’s important that all women know the risk factors, not just those of us with a family history.
Read more about breast health and self-examinations at breastcancer.org.
How You Can Help
Donate to charities that are educating women and working to find a cure. And spread the word. Here are a few of my favorites:
Breast Cancer Charities
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is committed to providing adults and children with cancer the best treatment available today while developing tomorrow’s cures through cutting-edge research. (Charity Navigator ranks it as one of the best breast cancer charities.)
Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF)
BCRF supplies critical funding for innovative research into breast cancer treatment. More than 90 cents of every dollar spent by the organization goes to breast cancer research and awareness programs.
Working to Make Products Safer
Breast Cancer Fund
The Breast Cancer Fund has an amazing website with a wealth of information about the environmental causes of breast cancer. They’re working hard to raise awareness about the carcinogens in our everyday products
Have any questions about breast cancer or my experience? Leave them in the comments, or join us on Facebook. I’d love to continue to the conversation!
–Sara Olsher, Marketing Manager