October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month!


Photo: Jodi Matsuo

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women, with an estimated one out of every eight women diagnosed yearly. Compared to other ethnic groups in Hawaiʻi, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander women are at highest risk of dying from breast cancer. It can happen to young and older women alike. While some think getting breast cancer cannot be prevented, this is not necessarily the case.

There are risk factors for breast cancer that cannot be changed, such as family history. However, there are lifestyle choices you can make that can lower the risk.

Research shows that drinking alcohol and being overweight increases risk of breast cancer, while being physically active and breastfeeding your children decreases risk. Eating vegetables, particularly those containing carotenoids, may also decrease risk.

Alcohol increases the levels of estrogen in your body, causing certain cancer cells to grow. Alcohol also damages DNA in cells, the first step in cancer development. The type of alcoholic drink – beer, wine, spirits – doesn’t matter, as they all contain ethanol, which transforms into toxic chemicals in the body. There is no safe amount of alcohol, as all amounts increase risk.

Being overweight increases estrogen, as well as other hormones that promote cancer growth. Being overweight also promotes inflammation in the body, making it more vulnerable to the development of cancer and other diseases. Eating more vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains, limiting sugar and processed foods, and being more physically active help in achieving and managing a healthier body weight.

Being physically active and getting regular exercise can help you to manage your weight better. That, in turn, helps to reduce the breast cancer risk related to excess body weight. Choosing a variety of exercise that you enjoy increases the chances you’ll stay active regularly. Aim to get at least 150 minutes of heart-pumping activity weekly.

The main way breastfeeding decreases breast cancer risk is by reducing exposure to estrogen, as levels are lower during breastfeeding. The recommendation is to breastfeed your baby exclusively for the first six months of life and to continue to breastfeed, along with providing appropriate healthy foods, for up to two years of their life.

Vegetables contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and a number of other nutrients that have been shown to lower risk of breast and other types of cancers in general. It is believed that the combination of these nutrients eaten together – not one particular type of nutrient – decreases risk. While all vegetables are beneficial, make sure to get carotenoid-containing fruits and vegetables, such as pumpkin, orange sweet potato, carrot, lūʻau leaves, spinach, papaya, bell pepper, and oranges.

If you are a breast cancer survivor, it is recommended you follow the same lifestyle guidelines as those for cancer prevention to lessen chances of recurrence.

Please mālama yourselves or the wāhine in your ʻohana. Ua ola loko i ke aloha – Love gives life within.