Research unearths factors leading to breast cancer

With a notable expansion in breast cancer research in the last decade, scientists and other fact-finders have unearthed a multitude of habitual and lifestyle factors that contribute, slightly or significantly, to breast cancer.
Susan Rinehart, community coordinator with the Carroll County Health Department's Breast and Cervical Cancer Program, said that overall, lifestyle factors do contribute to breast cancer, however, uncontrollable elements, such as gender, genetics and family history are more indicative of whether an individual will develop the disease, she said.
Rinehart stressed that while certain habits and lifestyle choices have a somewhat limited link to breast cancer, health professionals still recommended taking into account these risk factors:

Having children
Women who have children earlier in life tend to reap protective benefits from the hormones the body produces, which slightly decreases risk to developing breast cancer, Rinehart said.
If a woman, at the age 20 or younger, has a full-term pregnancy, the likelihood of her developing breast cancer is halved compared to that of a woman whose first pregnancy occurs after 30.
"But we don't encourage young pregnancies," Rinehart said.
Conversely, a woman who has a late pregnancy, or no children at all, will see a modest increase in the chances of developing breast cancer.
Women who have their first child after 35 are 57 percent more likely to develop the disease by age 70, according to a Harvard Medical School study.
During pregnancy, breast cells grow rapidly and rapid hormonal changes occur. While the cells grow, genetic damage in the breast tissue can lead to breast cancer.
Anything that causes abrupt changes in the body's hormones can cause a woman to develop breast cancer, said Jen Burdette, spokeswoman with the American Cancer Society.
"They're all tied into the hormone system," she said.
Increases in estrogen and progesterone have been linked to breast cancer, according to Monica Clark-McGrew, a nurse with Carroll Hospital Center's Center for Breast Health.
"Though rarely negative levels of those hormones can also be a factor," she said.


Contraceptives, while previously a more serious risk factor, has been largely discounted because of the changes in the drugs.
Burdette said that the American Cancer Society has not considered contraceptives a high risk because manufacturers have altered the levels and types of hormones in the contraceptives.
"It's such a different drug nowadays," she said.
Clark-McGrew agreed - contraceptives have been improved to include a lower dosage of hormones, which decreases the risk.
Before the shift to a lower dosage, which Burdette said occurred roughly five years ago, the hormones within contraceptives would alter the levels of estrogen within the body.
Rinehart said, however, to her knowledge a woman who uses an oral contraceptive will be 10 to 30 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman who does not.
But 10 years after the woman stops using the contraceptive, their chances will be the same in developing breast cancer as a woman who never used the pill.
"Sometimes these statistics can sound scary," Rinehart said said. "But by the numbers, it's low."
Rinehart said that the disruption to hormones contributes to the chances in developing breast cancer. Many other prescriptions and substances, like alcohol, can also skew the hormone levels, she said.

Consuming alcohol is proven to increase the risk of breast cancer, particularly when done on a daily basis, Rinehart said.
"Drinking changes the way the body metabolizes," Rinehart said. "It causes the blood estrogen levels to rise, which in turn increases the chance for breast cancer."
Rinehart suggested women impose a self-limit of one drink a day, if they must drink.
A woman's odds of developing breast cancer increase 7 percent if they drink every day, according to Rinehart.
Two to three drinks a day can increase the odds as much as 20 percent.
The percentages were determined by the nonprofit Susan G. Komen for the Cure, who pulled together data on more than 50 studies, Rinehart said.
The American Cancer Society suggests women avoid alcohol all together, or severely limit their intake, Burdette said.
"It definitely increases your risk," she said.


Smoking/tobacco Use
A relatively unexplored topic, smoking increases the risk of developing breast cancer, recent research has found. While many other forms of cancer, particularly lung, have been connected to smoking, growing evidence suggests a stronger link, Rinehart said.
Since the studies are fairly new, Rinehart could not provide exact statistics, but said officials in the county health department have noted a correlation.
Rinehart also assists with Cigarette Restitution Fund Program, which researches tobacco use and develops plans for those wishing to quit.
"It's being talked about a lot more," she said.
Burdette said that smoking in general has been largely agreed upon to be a heavy contributing factor to all types of cancer.
"It's about living a healthy lifestyle," she said.

Breast cancer prevention
Rinehart said being proactive is important.
She recommended women begin undergoing regular mammograms by the age of 40 onwards, and learn their family history.
Genetics can seriously increase the chances of developing breast cancer.
For instance, women who suffer mutations to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are 50 to 70 percent likely to actually develop breast cancer, Rinehart said. The BRCA genes assist in DNA and tissue repair.
The mutation is, however, relatively rare - one in 400 to 800 people carry it. Men can pass down the mutation, as well.
"The mammogram is the best tool we have now for prevention," Rinehart said.
The county offers free yearly mammograms to uninsured women who do not make certain income. Rinehart said to contact the department at 410-876-4423 to determine if you are eligible and to schedule an appointment.
Maintaining a healthy weight is also key to avoiding breast cancer, Burdette said. The American Cancer Society is in the process of conducting studies to determine which foods actually are breast cancer preventatives. Burdette said that the society has noted those who incorporate fruit and fish into their diets are less likely to develop the disease, but could not identify if the benefits were significant, because of the recentness of the studies.
"It's something we will continue to investigate," Burdette said.
Clark-McGrew said physical activity and overall maintaining a fitness schedule can reduce risk.
"And get mammograms - it can't prevent, but it can detect," she said.

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