October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Now is the time to start taking care of your girls. 

Do you know that you have a higher cancer burden and face greater obstacles to cancer prevention, detection, treatment and survival? In fact, Black people have the highest death rate and shortest survival rate of any racial/ethnic group for most cancers in the United States.

Approximately 12,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer are under the age of 40. We are more likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, and we have a higher risk of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations that carry a higher risk. Though great strides have been achieved in early diagnosis and treatment, Black women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. And we are twice as likely to die if we are over 50.  

Breast cancer prevention starts with your health habits. Obesity, physical inactivity and poor nutrition are major risk factors for cancer, second only to tobacco use. Evidence continues to show that women who exercise at moderate intensity reduce their risk of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends women workout four to five hours per week at a moderate intensity level—walking, biking, swimming, dancing.

Leading a healthy lifestyle does not eliminate your risk of serious health problems, like cancer, but it can help lower the risk. Physical activity helps because exercise lowers estrogen levels, fights obesity, lowers insulin levels and boosts the function of immune system cells that attack tumors. 

If you are in your 20s, become familiar with your breasts. Perform regular monthly self-exams one week after your period ends. Begin to familiarize yourself with your family history. Pay special attention to added risk factors for developing breast cancer, such as family members with the cancer or obesity.

In your 30s, it’s common to experience fibrocystic breast changes. These may be felt as lumps. If you find one, have your doctor check it out. Many doctors recommend getting a baseline mammogram no later than age 30.

If you are in your 40s, you need to be more vigilant than ever about breast screening. Be sure to schedule an annual mammogram and breast exam, and continue regular monthly breast self-exams. 

Here are some tips you can start doing today to help prevent breast cancer:

Stay physically active. No matter what your age, aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days. Try to include weight-bearing exercises, including walking, jogging or dancing. These have the added benefit of keeping your bones strong. 

Eat the right food. Increase the amount of fruits, vegetables, calcium and whole grains in your diet. Avoid high-fat foods, processed sweets, red meat, full-fat dairy products and fried foods.

Emphasize extra-virgin olive oil. Oleic acid, the main component of olive oil, appears both to suppress the action of the most important oncogene in breast cancer and increase the effectiveness of the drug Herceptin. 

Limit alcohol. Drinking alcohol is strongly linked to breast cancer. The type of alcohol consumed seems to make no difference. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink to less than one drink a day or avoid it completely. 

Maintain a healthy weight. There’s a clear link between obesity and breast cancer. The association is stronger if you gain the weight later in life, particularly after menopause. 

Avoid exposure to pesticides. The molecular structure of some pesticides closely resembles that of estrogen. This means they may attach to receptor sites in your body. Although studies have not found a definite link between most pesticides and breast cancer, it is known that women with elevated levels of pesticides in their breast tissue have a greater breast cancer risk. 

Birth control. According to Susan G. Komen, studies show that while women are taking the pill, their breast cancer risk is 20% to 30% higher than women who have never used the pill. Once women stop taking the pill, their risk of breast cancer begins to decrease. Talk to your gynecologist about the pros and cons.

Unnecessary antibiotics. According to Pharmaceutical Technology, new research has uncovered a possible link between antibiotic use and the speed of breast cancer growth in mice. 

Do you know the warning signs of breast cancer?

A change in the look or feel of the breast:

  • A change in the size or shape of the breast
  • A lump or thickening in the breast, the area surrounding the breast or the underarm
  • A warm sensation in the breast

A change in the look or feel of the nipple:

  • A nipple turned inward or sunken into the breast
  • The shape of the nipple becomes irregular
  • A rash on the nipple or areola
  • Nipple tenderness, increased sensitivity or pain

Nipple discharge:

  • Blood or fluid other than breast milk secreted from the nipple

A change in the look or feel of the skin on the breast, nipple or areola:

  • Dimpling of the skin on the breast (similar in texture to an orange rind)
  • The appearance of irritated, red, scaly or swollen skin on the breast, nipple or areola

Breast pain:

  • Although breast pain is usually associated with benign breast conditions, rather than breast cancer, it can be a symptom of either condition

Adapted from National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

There are organizations within the Black community you can support or seek help from in the fight against breast cancer:

African American Breast Cancer Alliance (AABCA) provides emotional and social support for breast cancer patients and survivors to help them have better recovery experiences.

Black Women’s Health Imperative promotes physical, mental and spiritual health and well-being for the nation’s 19.5 million African-American women and girls. 

Sisters by Choice (SBC) is a leader in breast cancer education, awareness and support for women diagnosed with breast cancer.

Sisters Network Inc. is committed to increasing local and national attention to the impact breast cancer has in the African-American community.

Malecare is a support and advocacy organization focused on the needs of male cancer survivors. It is known for its men’s health programs for underserved populations. 

National LGBT Cancer Network works to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ cancer survivors and those at risk through education, training and advocation. 

National LGBT Cancer Project is a support and advocacy organization focused on the needs of LGBT cancer survivors. Services include peer-to-peer support, patient navigation, education and advocacy.

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