Daughter’s Questions Raise Good Points About Preventing (Breast) Cancer

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(The Vancouver Sun, November 4, 2002)

Q: With October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, my teenage daughter has started asking me questions about what she needs to do to make sure she doesn’t get it. Although I want her to be aware, I don’t want her to become paranoid. I’ve told her what I know about self-examinations, but I thought it would help her to read some information coming from you.

Saleema: I’m not surprised your daughter is frightened—so am I. The chilling facts are that 22% of all breast cancers occur in women under 50 years of age, with incidence beginning to rise after the age of 25. It is estimated that 19,500 women in Canada developed breast cancer in 2001, 5500 of whom will die from the disease. Breast cancer is the leading killer of women aged 35 to 55 (National Cancer Institute of Canada, Canadian Cancer Statistics 2000 and 2001).

I agree that it is important that you help your daughter maintain a balance between being healthily aware and being unnecessarily paranoid. Although I’m sure you have already, share with your daughter how proud you are that she is taking responsibility for her health and is willing to take the steps needed to prevent breast cancer. Reassure her, though, that she doesn’t need to worry too much at her age. Although it is never too early for girls to be preventative and knowledgeable, doctors tell us that breast cancer most often affects women after their teen years. Rethink Breast Cancer, a new Canadian charity dedicated to beating the disease, offers some useful preventative tips you and your daughter may be interested to read about:

1. Go outside and play! Compared to no physical activity, exercising four hours a week has been reported to decrease risk by 60 percent.
2. Avoid having more than one drink of alcohol per day (hopefully, that is a non-issue for your daughter!).
3. Eat well. A low fat, high fiber diet with lots of fruits and veggies may decrease risk by 15 to 20 percent.
4. Don’t smoke. Hopefully your daughter doesn’t, but make sure she doesn’t start!
5. Keep a healthy attitude and maintain your emotional health.
6. As for breast examinations, women 20 years of age and older should perform breast self-exams (BSE) every month and have a physician-performed clinical breast exam at least every three years. Women 40 years and older should have yearly screening mammograms in addition to yearly clinical breast exams and monthly breast self-exams. If you have a family history of breast cancer, consult your doctor about having mammograms starting at an earlier age, as early as 25 in some cases.

Rethink Breast Cancer also distributes a small, fun, colorful brochure in partnership with the Big Bam! Foundation called “The Big Bam! Self-Exam”. I agree with the young women I have given the brochure to (during my work at high schools and in the community) who tell me it is very user-friendly and comprehensive. You can reach Rethink Breast Cancer by e-mail at info@rethinkbreastcancer.com or by phone at 416-920-0980.

Here in the Lower Mainland, you can find more information about the prevention of breast cancer by calling the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation BC/Yukon Chapter at 604-683-2873 or toll-free at 1-800-561-6111.

The good news is that breast cancer has a 95% survival rate if detected and treated early. As well, increased awareness combined with research focused on understanding how and why tumors develop will result in new and more effective methods of treatment. It is also comforting to remember that more women than ever are surviving breast cancer today.