Are you breast cancer aware?

Posted on: 01 October 2013 by Gareth Hargreaves

Female breast cancer has increased by 70% since the mid 1970s, but what causes it and what steps can you take to reduce your risk?

Breast Cancer Awareness MonthAnastacia, the I’m Outta Love singer, has had a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer a second time. The artist revealed the news as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) to highlight the fact that anyone is susceptible.

Understand Cancer

All cancers are caused when the cell's DNA or genetic material becomes damaged or mutated. Every cell in the body reproduces itself, but when cells are healthy, they mimic themselves exactly, stick together correctly and die when they are damaged. Cancer cells continue to reproduce even though they are damaged and don't stick together correctly, which is what eventually causes a tumour.

There are many factors in our every day environment that make cells mutate so avoiding or reducing your exposure to them will help prevent all cancers, including breast cancer.

Who is at risk of Breast Cancer?

The chances of having any form of cancer increases with age but although 80% of breast cancers occur in post-menopausal women, statistics show it is the most common cause of death in women aged 34 - 54. And as Anastacia has shown, no one, of any age should be complacent.

According to figures from the charity Breast Cancer Care, 55,000 British women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Men can also develop breast cancer although it is not nearly as common, with the majority of cases occurring in men over the age of 60. Around 400 men are diagnosed annually.

There is a genetic risk of breast cancer, but this only accounts for 5-10% of all cases. If you have one or two close female relatives with the disease, you could have inherited the mutated genes or cells that cause breast cancer, but all cancer charities agree that most women with one or two affected relatives will not necessarily have breast cancer themselves. Genes are hereditary but how you live your life alters the chemistry within the body. Speak to your GP if you are worried about a hereditary risk because anyone over the age of 40 with a strong family history of breast cancer is entitled to breast screening on the NHS. Anyone over the age of 50 is entitled to a mammogram anyway.

Statistics suggest that 1 in 8 women will have breast cancer and sadly, this figure is increasing. Twenty years ago, 1 in 20 women would have breast cancer, although thanks to early detection and medical advances over the last ten years there has been a decline in the number of deaths from breast cancer.

But question is, why has our risk almost doubled in the last twenty years? Experts do not know the answer to this, although generally, the modern western lifestyle is cited as the cause. In rural China, the risk for women is 1 in 10,000 - a stark comparison to the 1 in 8 in the UK. 

Check yourself once a month

Prevention is always better than cure. Examine your breasts once a month and look for any abnormal lumps or changes to the breast tissue. Learn how to check yourself with this online guide from Breast Cancer Care.

Think about the contraceptive pill & HRT

Since the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s women are having children later in life and fewer of them. Being pregnant or breast feeding naturally reduces exposure to a particular type of oestrogen which has been identified as increasing the risk of breast cancer. So by choosing to have children later in life, and less of them, we are naturally increasing our risk.

There are questions over the contraceptive pill itself increasing the risk of breast cancer, because it is made from synthetic oestrogen.

The body has trouble excreting excessive oestrogen, so instead,it recycles it and stores it in fat cells. However, scientists have discovered that 'bad' oestrogen production can be stimulated by this synthetic oestrogen, and it is this aggressive form of 'bad' oestrogen that mutates cells and can eventually lead to breast cancer.

If you read any medical research on the link between breast cancer and the contraceptive pill, experts do not like to suggest it is a risk factor of breast cancer. Howver, taking the pill is a choice, and everyone should be aware that by doing so, they may be increasing their chances of having breast cancer. If you do not need to take the pill, then don't.

If you are menopausal, avoid HRT - a combined form of synthetic oestrogen and progesterone - and try a herbal alternative such as black cohosh or red clover instead. In 2003 Cancer Research UK began an ongoing study of a million women into the possible links between HRT and breast cancer. So far they have discovered that for every 1000 women on HRT, there will be an extra 5 cases of breast cancer. 

Lose weight & exercise

All life-threatening diseases are reduced by exercise because it makes our immune system work efficiently, so aim to exercise for an hour at least three times a week.

Being over weight increases your chances of having breast cancer, but particularly if you are overweight after menopause. If you were over-weight before menopause, you are not at a higher risk, but if your weight increased significantly after the menopause make a concerted effort to lose it because once post menopausal, your oestrogen levels are linked to the amount of body fat you have.

Limit alcohol intake

Excessive alcohol intake is linked to breast cancer, and research suggests that it can increase your risk of breast cancer more than taking HRT. With each additional measure of alcohol, the risk of breast cancer is increased by 7% and according to Cancer UK, there will be an extra 3 cases of breast cancer for every 200 women who have 2 drinks a day when compared to women who do not drink at all. To be safe, drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, roughly a drink a day. (One unit is half a pint of beer, a glass of wine or one measure of spirits.)

Avoid pesticides, buy organic

When we are exposed to any foreign chemical over a long period of time, our cells mutate and can become cancerous. A particular type of pesticide called an organochlorine pesticide actually mimics oestrogen and once in the body, it can become the aggressive or bad form of oestrogen that eventually causes breast cancer.

Always buy organic produce, meat and dairy to avoid exposure to these pesticides, and remember that the extra money spent is well spent because it contains more vitamins and minerals than non-organic produce. If a total organic shop is impossible, always buy organic root vegetables, leafy vegetables (spinach, lettuce etc.), and anything that cannot be peeled. Wash all produce before use, but especially non organic fruit and vegetables because most of the chemicals they were sprayed with will be sitting on the skin.

Ditch trans fats

The mantra used to be avoid animal fats, but recent research has shown that it's the quality of fats, not the type of fat that is most harmful. Natural fats found in avocados and nuts are good for the body, as is olive oil and animal fats in small quantities. It's hydrogenated vegetable fats, also known as trans-fats that are the bad guys. Always read the label of any food you buy, and put it back on the shelf if it contains hydrogenated vegetable fat. All manufactured biscuits, cakes, desserts, crisps, chips and many chocolate bars contain trans fats so get label savvy.

Toxic Chemicals & Water

Besides a diet of more processed foods than ever before and injecting our cattle with various hormones and antibiotics, every cleaning product in your house, your makeup, shampoo and other toiletries contain tens of chemicals that are known to be toxic. Try eco-friendly cleaning products and organic, chemical free make up and toiletries instead. Many websites sell them - try Also remember that many toxins end up in the water supply, so buy a water filter and use it, not only for drinking but also for cooking with.


Plastics contain chemicals which, just like pesticides, mimic oestrogen in the body that can damage cells and lead to cancer. Never re-heat food in plastic packaging because the chemicals leak out of the plastic and into the food. Make sure cling film doesn't touch the food it is covering, and don't re-use plastic bottles.

What's More...

Vitamin C reduces your risk of cancer, so take a daily supplement and eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Many cancer patients have low carotene levels so eat more carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots, mangoes, broccoli, red peppers, spinach, watercress and parsley.

Linseeds contain a fibre called lignan that protects the breast tissue so try them sprinkled over cereals, use to top salads and blend with fruit juice for a health-giving smoothie.

Women who wear a bra for more than 14 hours a day are 50% more likely to develop breast cancer because bras effect the lymph nodes found under the arms and in the upper chest. Lymph nodes drain off excess fluid and filter particles out of the body.

October is internationally recognised as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Show your support by wearing a pink ribbon.

Web Links

For further information, help and advice visit

Carol Edrich talks about her experience of living with breast cancer

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