Volume 92, Issue 30

Wednesday, October 28, 1998

hot air


It's a matter of health

Dipesh Mistry/Gazette

By Jessica Spodek
Gazette Writer

It's frightening, it can be deadly and more than one in nine women will be victims of it sometime in their lives. It is close to us all because it affects us all in some way.

The recent increase of "pink ribbons" pinned to lapels of jackets and streaming from car antennaes represents support for breast cancer research, as October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. With the promise of new technology and research, there is currently a hope breast cancer will be cured in our lifetime, but unfortunately as of yet there is no cure. And the reality remains that most university-aged women are not concerned with the threat of developing breast cancer.

"There is minimal risk for women younger than 25 years actually developing breast cancer – in fact there is less than one in a thousand chance for a woman in that age category to develop breast cancer," says Jennifer Morecroft, communications officer for the Canadian Cancer Society. "This does not mean that they should not be concerned."

Anna Tomiak, an oncologist at the London Regional Cancer Centre, agrees. "Most younger women are not immediately threatened by breast cancer, but through awareness, they should routinely think about reducing the risk of breast cancer and other cancers as well.

"Women should get into the habit of performing monthly breast self-examinations. Because breasts change according to menses, women should conduct the exams predictably, at the same time each month. This will make it easier for a person to get to know what their breasts feel like and can facilitate detection of lumps now and in the future," Tomiak explains.

There are differing opinions about how to conduct a breast examination. Pat Ogborn, coordinator of volunteers at the Burlington Breast Cancer Support Services, says a woman should conduct the exam she is most comfortable with, as long as it is done properly. Although only one per cent of the male population develops breast cancer, Ogborn also encourages men to check themselves regularly.

In an attempt to accomplish this goal, Burlington Breast Cancer Support Services, in conjunction with Zonta of Burlington, has created a high school awareness program called Mammacheck.

"Mammacheck persuades high schools to teach the self-breast exam to its students," Ogborn says. "The youngest person with a lump who we saw within the last six months was a 17-year-old.

"Breast cancer used to be rare for women in their 40s, but now it is sickeningly common for women in their 30s. Breast cancer is being detected earlier and the common sense explanation is because of breast exams – this issue is extremely relevant to teenagers and women of all ages," she adds.

The cause or causes of breast cancer remain unknown, but there are risk factors which can be indicators for increased chance of development. Some of those factors are family history of pre-menopausal cancer, age at first pregnancy, estrogen levels, early onset of menstruation, late menopause, diet and genetic predisposition.

"This does not mean that those who do not display any of the risk factors are immune to breast cancer," Morecroft says.

Dr. James Chan, a naturopathic physician, says the naturopathic approach to treating cancer takes many factors into consideration. Essentially, the body should be taken care of in a comprehensive and non-invasive manner. Students should be concerned about changing their lifestyles in order to sustain a healthy immune system.

Dietary intake should be monitored and foods which are thought to promote cancer, such as processed meat, fruits and vegetables with pesticides and processed foods should be avoided. Eating natural foods will help support the immune system, which can reduce the chances of developing cancer, Chan says.

"Younger individuals have more robust immune systems which are more fit to fight off cancer cells. If one chooses to lead an active life, circulation is increased along with one's cardiovascular capacity. This can lead to a reduced incidence in cancer," Chan says.

Tomiak also stresses the importance of lifestyle choices. Though there's no hard evidence that health and lifestyle choices will prevent cancer, it is strongly suspected that they are closely linked. She suggests a healthy diet of high fiber, fruits and vegetables, with a low intake of fat and alcohol.

"There are negative effects a brassiere may have on the occurrence of breast cancer, especially ones with underwires," Chan says. "Brassieres cause irritation to breast tissue which is very tender and apt to soreness and cuts off the circulation around the breast. Ideally, no brassiere should be worn, but for those who feel it is necessary, a non-irritating supportive, yet non-underwire brassiere is recommended," he adds.

However, according to Tomiak, this is not necessarily the case. She contends that it is unlikely that brassieres are related to the development of breast cancer because cancer is caused by genetic mutations and most physical agents are not causal factors.

Women should keep informed about new research surfacing in this area of study.

"There are varying opinions regarding the effects of the birth control pill on cancer. It is a controversial topic. There are some studies which indicate that the birth control pill is associated with breast cancer, yet there are other studies which indicate that it is not," Tomiak explains.

Tests on lab animals have shown high estrogen levels are related to breast cancer, however, these tests are still inconclusive. It is because the pill raises estrogen levels that it is suspected of being connected to breast cancer.

Chan has a differing view regarding the birth control pill. He says taking high levels of hormones, such as estrogen, can lead to detrimental circumstances in the future, such as the development of cancer.

To date, two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, have been discovered in association with breast cancer. An individual who carries the gene is at an increased risk of acquiring breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer in males and other malignancies.

Although screening programs exist, which determine carriers from non-carriers, if there is no family history of breast or ovarian cancer, screening is not recommended. Moreover, only 10 per cent of individuals who develop breast cancer have the gene, Tomiak explains.

"If you are going to get cancer, breast cancer is a good one to get, but education is necessary. Breast cancer has one of the highest survival rates, 90 per cent, if it is detected early enough. The standard Canada-wide statistic is that over the span of one's life, there is a one in nine chance of developing breast cancer," Ogborn says.

Ogborn also believes a mother can be greatly influenced by seeing her daughter practicing breast self-exams and learning about the risk factors related to breast cancer. A mother may realize the importance involved and begin to check her own breasts for lumps.

Though people may have a tendency to give attention only to issues that affect them directly, it's clear breast cancer needs and deserves greater acknowledgement from the larger community and not just women in the high-risk category.

After all, Ogborn says, "this is a disease that affects all lives – your mother, your sister, your aunt, your neighbor and yourself."

Did you know?

31.3 women per 100,000 infected with breast cancer died in 1997

Approximately 78 women per 100,000 developed the disease in 1969

Approximately 109 women per 100,000 developed it in 1997

Over 85 per cent of lumps found in the breast are benign

Chance of developing breast cancer by the age of 25 – less than one in a thousand; chance by the age of 50 – one in 63; chance by the age of 75 – one in 15; chance by the age of 90 – one in nine

About 50 per cent of Canadian women are said to be at "higher risk" of developing breast cancer; according to genetics and lifestyle

You are at an increased risk for developing breast cancer if you have a relative afflicted

More women in Ontario die of breast cancer than any other cancer

Compiled from Canadian Breast Cancer Initiative website and the Canadian Cancer Society

To Contact The Focus Department: gazette.focus@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998