Last year I was impressed that as a nation we are great at promoting Breast Cancer Awareness when my playing partner at golf elected to play with pink tees! This year we have a nation-wide campaign of purchasing pink valve caps which is a huge success.

But on second thoughts let’s look closely at what we are really promoting. Breast Cancer is the most common cancer afflicting women in New Zealand. Approx. 2500 women are diagnosed each year and over 600 of these women are dying annually. The incidence in breast cancer in women is increasing world wide – this could well be due to better detection, but then at best the message from the medical world is ‘early detection’ with great emphasis on regular mammograms.

It is well known that the earliest breast cancer cells could be present up to 8 years prior to detection, a critical period when better outcomes can be achieved by prevention. Breast cancer occurs when breast cells divide and grow without control, caused by changes in cell DNA. Most breast cancers start in the ducts and then proceed to invade surrounding tissue and lymph glands. In advanced metastatic disease the cancer can spread to distant organs such as the lungs, liver and bones.

In the early stages there is usually no pain and there are no symptoms at all. As the cancer grows a persistent lump or thickening in the breast or armpit may be felt. There can be changes in the colour and shape of the breast with changes in the areola with a discharge or puckering. A combination of self breast examination or examination by a doctor, in conjunction with regular mammograms after the age of 40 years, remains the cornerstone of ‘early detection.’

There have been concerns re regular radiation and the possibility of escape of cancer cells by compression during mammography expressed in recent years by some doctors. Thermography, which uses infrared heat seeking sensors, remains another modality for detection that is currently not widely accepted.

In my opinion looking at risk factors and prevention of breast cancer can offer real valuable help in reducing the fast increasing incidence of this cancer. Genetic and environmental factors play an important role. If your mother, sister or daughter has had breast cancer you have a higher risk of developing it yourself. Mutations like BRAC1 and BRAC2 genes have high penetrance and can be checked in family members. Even though all humans basically carry the same genetic information, every person is unique. This individuality can make some women more susceptible to some diseases and may increase the risk of breast cancer.

Lifestyle factors like being over weight and the amount of physical activity have been shown to be linked to a higher incidence of breast cancer. Also consumption of more than one standard drink of alcohol increases the risk by altering the way a woman’s body metabolises oestrogen.

Other environmental factors such as the presence of pesticides, herbicides and chemicals in skin care products add to the body’s load of oestrogen look-alike chemicals called xenoestrogens. These are known to be cancer promoting. Certain key nutrients like iodine, which is widely deficient in rural areas worldwide including New Zealand, can affect healthy oestrogen metabolism.

At the Wellness Centre a comprehensive assessment of the risks and modification of these risk factors is offered by way of:

1) Appropriate urine testing for iodine levels and checking of oestrogen metabolites

2) Genetic testing when appropriate

3) Breast examination and appropriate mammography.

4) Diet advice – includes

  • Consumption of organic foods, increasing the consumption of the brassica family – namely broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage and low consumption of alcohol.
  • Detoxification procedures as needed.
  • Help in achieving ideal weight and exercise routine
  • Appropriate supplementation to help oestrogen metabolism.

So for Breast Cancer Awareness week I sincerely hope that we spread our attention and resources beyond more than awareness and ‘early detection and mammograms’ to widespread education of lifestyle factors that are so vital in maintaining health and avoiding disease – as individuals we have the choice!

Breast Cancer Awareness