Re-Examining Breast Health
Most women are aware of the risk of breast cancer; we have learned to perform monthly self-exams and visit the doctor for regular mammograms. While these are important tools for early detection of breast cancer, are we doing enough to optimize the health of our breasts?
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer kills more than 40,000 women in the U.S. every year. For women between 40 and 54, it is the second leading cause of death, trailing only heart disease. If a woman lives to age 85, she has a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer over the course of her life. To remind us of the prevalence of this disease, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But what the promotional billboards and posters may not tell us is that our yoga practice can help create a broad lifestyle program to minimize the risk of breast cancer.
Understand Your Breasts
The hormone that plays the largest role in breast health and disease is estrogen. Each month after she stops menstruating, a woman's ovaries begin to step up their production of estrogen. In response, the lining on the inner uterine wall begins to build, preparing the body for the possibility of pregnancy. Estrogen also encourages the breast cells to swell and retain fluid. If a fertilized egg doesn't implant in the uterine wall, the newly built lining is shed in menstruation and the breast cells become smaller again.
If you examine your breasts regularly, you may have found that the tissues change in a predictable rhythm that follows your menstrual cycle. Many women experience some swelling and tenderness before their period. Although these changes can range from barely noticeable to extremely uncomfortable, they aren't usually cause for alarm about cancer. Neither are some other alterations, including fibroadenomas (lumps common among teenagers and women in their 20s) and cysts (most common in 35- to 55-year-old women).
But occasionally changes in breast tissue stray beyond these variations into the realm of cancer. Instead of reproducing normally, cells mutate. Even then, most of the time the immune system destroys the abnormal cells. If the immune system doesn't check them, however, cancerous cells can begin to multiply.
What causes the normal reproduction of healthy breast cells to go awry, the immune system to fail in its surveillance, and cancer to develop? The factors involved are so numerous and their interactions so complex that we may never have a final, definitive answer to that question. But researchers have identified a number of factors definitely correlated with increased risk of breast cancer, and future research may discover others.