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Time to Talk About "Our Girls:" 5 Breast Cancer Facts

It’s October, and time to talk about our “girls” again. Even if they are on your mind at other times, October is the month that is ok to talk about our breasts in mixed company!

If you think about it our breasts a.k.a “mammary glands” actually define our Class in the animal kingdom, called Mammalia. Mammary glands distinguish us from other classes of animals, such as reptiles, because we nurse and nurture our young. However no other mammal has objectified or sexualized them, the way we humans have.

We have many slang names for them, such as boobs, tits, ta-tas, cans and “the girls”, just to name a few. But whatever you call them we humans are obsessed with breasts. And it is not just men; many women are obsessed too, about their shape, their firmness and their size. For many we let our breasts define us.

The art world has glorified them in sculptures and paintings. Hollywood reveres them. The fashion industry celebrates and decorates them, with padded, pushed up and revealing low cut décolletage and cleavage.
Perhaps our attachment to our breasts comes from the fact that our mothers did nurture and feed us with them. Therefore it is an ironic cruel twist of fate that an organ, which at one time literally sustains life, can turn so sinister in the cancerous state.

Breast cancer is one of the most emotional diseases for women. It invokes literally armies of advocates trying to defeat it, even though heart disease is women’s number one health threat. Heart attacks kill six times more women than breast cancer every year. But the heart awareness “red” campaign is years behind the strides that breast cancer’s “pink ribbon” campaign has made. As a physician I sometimes wonder if all this “awareness” feed into women’s fears and emotions.

In a recent radio show that I dedicated to breast cancer, we discussed how even for early stage breast cancer women are opting for total and sometimes even double mastectomies despite studies showing there is no increase in survival. One likely reason behind this is there is still such fear associated with the "big C.” Psychologically, women just want the cancer out of their bodies. And who can blame them? Despite what I know scientifically now as a physician, as a woman I think I would feel the same way! It is a very frightening decision women have to make.

But there are some important facts that women should keep in mind when it comes to breast cancer.

  1. Breast cancer is not the most deadly cancer for women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) lung cancer is more deadly and attributed to more cancer deaths. And as discussed above still the number one cause of death in women is heart disease.
  2. Lumps are not the only sign of breast cancer. There are other symptoms you should not ignore. They are a spontaneous or bloody nipple discharge, an inverted nipple or dimpling any where in your breast.
  3. Breast cancer can hurt. Despite the description of breast cancer being a painless lump, there is a type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer and it can be painful. The symptoms are inflamed skin with enlarged pores as well as redness and scaling of skin or the nipple of your breast. It can resemble an orange peel and is called peau d’orange.
  4. Keeping your weight down can reduce your risk of breast cancer. This is especially true as we age a recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that starting at age 25 going up a skirt size every decade was associated with a 33% increased of developing breast cancer after menopause. Another recent study published in JAMA, Oncology found postmenopausal women with a BMI higher than 35 had a 58% increased risk of breast cancer.
  5. Consumption of any amount of alcohol can increase your risk of breast cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) women who consumed 3 drinks a day or more had a 1.5 times increased in their risk of developing breast cancer. However even just having slightly less than 1 drink a day (1/3 of an ounce) you could slightly increase your risk by 7%.

Of course there are those of us who have a family history of breast cancer that puts us at risk, just like with heart disease, but the old adage is true, “you can’t choose your relatives.” Therefore you need to focus on the things you can do. And with breast health just like our health in general our lifestyle choices can help mitigate some of our risk. Eating healthy and exercising to maintain a healthy weight as well as watching your alcohol consumption. And while the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) doesn’t recommend monthly self-breast exams to help lower death risk, as a physician, I certainly see no down side. And it can make you aware of any suspicious symptoms described above. Also talk with your doctor about when to start getting screening mammograms.

While we might not all be happy with the way our “girls” are looking these days (myself included!) …we all can still take some steps to try to keep them healthy!

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© Dr. Leigh Vinocur, 2022.