Just being a woman is the biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer. In a published article some years ago, US-based Oncology Surgeon, Dr Theophilus Lewis pointed out that all women are at risk for breast cancer, since the risks associated with contracting the disease are not controllable.
This worrying pronouncement was made during a seminar held right here in Guyana, which was spearheaded by US-based Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Organisation for Social and Health Advancement in Guyana (OSHAG).
Most notably, it was revealed that age and family history are among the biggest risk factors for contracting the disease. According to the Surgeon, where the incidence of a young woman contracting the disease in her 30s is very small – 0.4 per cent— he is currently treating five patients, all under 30 years, for the disease. A rather unusual occurrence, according to the Oncologist.
This grabs the attention since the focus on breast cancer usually starts when a woman turns 40; it was explained too that after this age, the incidence of contracting breast cancer doubles, going from 0.4-1.46. With each passing decade, the risk factor increases; hence, age is one of the primary risk factors for breast cancer.
One of the other important points highlighted was that oestrogen is a driver for breast cancer and what this means is that once a woman has a long exposure to oestrogen, which is not interrupted by pregnancies, then the risk factor for developing breast cancer becomes greater.
Oestrogen can be defined as a female steroid hormone that is produced by the ovaries and, in lesser amounts, by the adrenal cortex, placenta, and male testes. Oestrogen helps control and guide sexual development, including the physical changes associated with puberty.
This risk is especially pronounced in women who have menstruated very early (9 or 10 years old) and who menstruate into their 50s, and would have been exposed to oestrogen for many years. If, however, the years of exposure are broken up by pregnancies, this increased risk is considerably reduced, Dr Lewis said, even as he pointed out that a pregnancy is regarded as a protective period.
It was also explained that a woman who conceives and gives birth after the age of 34 or 35 will likely lose the protection from oestrogen by that age, and will also be at high risk of developing cancer.
It is not usual for young women to develop breast cancer at a young age; when a woman is young, oestrogen stores in the fat. The more obese a woman is, the more fat she is likely to be able to store. But although a woman stops making oestrogen when she is older and begins menopause, the oestrogen already stored in the fat makes them more at risk for developing cancer.
For this reason, Dr Lewis noted that developing breast cancer is not necessarily impacted by what you eat, but due to the amount of oestrogen you are able to store because of being overweight. Other risk factors include family history.
Women with close relatives who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease. If you’ve had one first-degree female relative (sister, mother, daughter) diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk is doubled.
Among the other risk factors, research suggests that women with low levels of vitamin D have a higher risk of breast cancer. Vitamin D may play a role in controlling normal breast cell growth and may be able to stop breast cancer cells from growing.
Every woman wants to know what she can do to lower her risk of breast cancer. Some of the factors associated with breast cancer –being a woman, your age, and your genetics, for example – can’t be changed. Other factors –being overweight, lack of exercise, smoking cigarettes, and eating unhealthy food – can be changed by making choices. By choosing the healthiest lifestyle options possible, you can empower yourself and make sure your breast cancer risk is as low as possible.