Not only is breast cancer the most common female cancer, expected to affect 1 in 8, and increasing alarmingly at 3.5 percent annually, but it afflicts more women under 50 with more aggressive and more difficult-to-treat forms of the cancer. Only 10 percent of breast cancer is hereditary (genetic); therefore environmental causes have great effect and can be modified by habits and decisions. When detected early, breast cancer has an excellent prognosis.
Risk factors, prevention
Environmental risk factors include smoking, obesity, excess alcohol consumption, and possibly toxins ingested by girls during breast development. As lifetime estrogen exposure increases, so does breast cancer risk, and women in modern Western cultures start menses at younger ages than in developing countries. This partially explains the cancer’s higher incidence in wealthier countries.
Artificial hormones increase its risk, particularly oral contraceptives. A recent whole-country prospective study of the 1.8 million women of reproductive age in Denmark demonstrated an average 20 percent increased risk of breast cancer with contraceptive use. This risk was lower (under 10 percent) with one-year use, but increases to just under 40 percent with 10 years of use. An estimated 140 million women worldwide take hormonal contraceptives including 15 percent of women between 15 and 49 years old.
Many are shocked to learn the link between abortion and breast cancer. To date, around 30 of 40 studies have shown that abortion is a significant risk – and potentially causative factor for breast cancer, particularly if it occurs before the first full-term pregnancy. In this circumstance, there is up to 50 percent increased risk of breast cancer and this risk increases with multiple abortions (references available on www.polycarp.org ).
Habits that decrease risk
Healthy eating and exercise provide multiple health benefits and decrease the risk of breast cancer. Eating a healthy diet rich in natural vegetables and fruits as well as getting good nightly sleep are protective.
Alcohol is a known toxin associated with breast cancer. Women should limit alcohol consumption, since more than 1 or 2 daily alcoholic drinks routinely increases the risk of breast cancer.
Artificial hormones use should be avoided or reduced.
Full-term pregnancies and lactation decrease the risk of breast cancer as well as providing benefits to the newborn.
Routine annual mammography is still the primary method of secondary prevention (early detection). For women without a strong family history, annual mammography starting at age 40 is recommended.
Modern culture, science and faith
Today’s culture promotes patient autonomy and providing more information for making health-care decisions. This trend supports giving patients information on abortion and contraception risks. Many aren’t duly informed of these grave dangers. A recent documentary Hush is available and discusses them. In a culture that values patient autonomy and shared decision making, such serious risks should be included in informed consent.
Recent studies are encouraging since they lend scientific support to the Catholic viewpoint. Contrary to the myth, faith and science are not necessarily in conflict since ultimately truth cannot contradict truth.
DAVID J. HILGER M.D. is a diagnostic radiologist practicing in Omaha, Nebraska, with an expertise in women’s imaging and breast cancer detection. He is on the national board of the Catholic Medical Association and is a member of Legatus, having served previously as president of the Omaha Chapter.