October is also breast cancer awareness month, which compared with Halloween has absolutely everything in common.
I don’t know a single woman, myself included, for whom simply the thought of a breast cancer diagnosis is not terrifying.
A little over a year ago, following news of a cancer diagnosis for two people very close to me, I titled my newsletter “Too Much Cancer, Dammit!”, and received more personal responses than I ever had before or since.
There IS too much cancer, damn it, so much in fact that I would argue that even without a month devoted to breast (or colon, or cervical, or liver, or brain, or ovarian, or prostate, etc.) cancer awareness, our collective awareness would remain steadfastly high.
We’re not winning the war on breast cancer. We may be winning the war on early detection, better screening, and treatment; death rates from breast cancer have fallen 1.9% per year since 2002, yet rates for new breast cancer cases have remained steady for the past 10 years. (1)
The theme of my aforementioned newsletter was prevention. I’ve devoted my career to educating on preventive lifestyle habits, primarily nutrition and fitness. The data is overwhelmingly strong – the choices we make on a daily basis directly influence our health. It’s what I advocate for, believe in, and strive to live in my own life.
Yet, regardless of how staunch my position on prevention and cancer, there is no guarantee; for anyone. In no way (and believe me, I could win a gold medal for trying) can we control every aspect of our environment – an environment that is toxic in so many ways. While we all carry cancer genes, some of us (yep, my maternal relatives) have the added risk factor of genetic pre-disposition. Sometimes the deck is simply stacked against us.
I occasionally wonder what would happen if I were diagnosed with cancer (my secret fear, by the way). I wonder if it would change your perspective on taking care of yourself, as in, “Well, if Cathy Leman has cancer, there’s no hope for anyone – I give up.”
If that were the case, it would make me really, really sad.
We can’t forget to pull back and consider the larger picture. Cancer doesn’t appear as the result of something unhealthy you did last week, it takes literally years to develop (for example, colorectal cancer begins with a single mutation to a gene, yet it takes on average 30 years from that point for the cells to acquire several other DNA mutations they need in order to spread and kill). (2)
If I were to be diagnosed with cancer, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I haven’t lived my entire life with the attention to prevention that I have in the last couple of decades. I can assure you, in my early twenties, breast cancer prevention wasn’t even on my radar; many of my habits during that time weren’t exactly supportive of good health.
At the time of a cancer diagnosis, it’s only human to wonder “what caused it?”, yet other than testing positive for the breast cancer gene(s), it’s essentially impossible to know. Excess weight, smoking, inactivity, and too much alcohol have all been implicated in contributing to breast cancer, but so has exposure to chemicals in certain plastics (who hasn’t experienced THAT?), and a dizzying collection of toxicity we’ve not clearly identified, yet couldn’t avoid if we tried.
That said, I maintain that practicing preventive lifestyle habits puts us in a position to fight back hard at whatever health curveball life throws at us – even a ghoulish, macabre cancer diagnosis. A healthy, strong body stacks the deck in our favor, perhaps by slowing the rate of disease progression, having a less invasive form of the disease, or giving us the ability to withstand treatments with fewer side effects and stronger recovery.
During the month of October I encourage you to heed the recommendations for breast cancer awareness; know your risk factors, get screened, know what’s “normal” for you, and practice preventive lifestyle behaviors. . .like maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, and limiting alcohol; then repeat – over and over and over.