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Re-Examining Breast Health

Are you doing everything you can to prevent breast cancer? Yoga can reduce your risk by stimulating lymph flow, strengthening the endocrine and immune systems, and improving your attitude toward your body.

By Joanna Colwell

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
To understand how yoga can help, let's first do a quick primer on breasts and on what goes wrong when breast cancer develops. The tissues of the breasts—glands, ducts, connective tissue, and fat cells—begin to grow rapidly in response to the hormonal changes that happen at puberty. Throughout a woman's life, the complex hormonal balance regulated by the endocrine system—including the pineal, pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands; the thymus, pancreas, and ovaries; and other scattered tissues—has an enormous impact on the development and health of her 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.

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Reader Comments

Janet Hartman

Sandy, your words of wisdom have inspired me to search for any and all means to keep me cancer free. I have googled lots of words since my breast cancer scare, and breast thermography sounds like it won't hurt my poor breast! I'm checking it out. Thanks


I have gotten into the habit of researching alternative care since my breast cancer scare earlier this year, during which I discovered a diagnostic called Thermography that can detect possible breast cancer almost a decade before it even becomes a tumor. Furthermore it does this safely and without squishing your breasts, instead creating a heat map of the blood flow in your breasts. Google "breast thermography" and read about it. It's been FDA approved since the 70's! However it's not backed up by "big pharma" and has not made the mainstream like mammography.

We have to be educated consumers of healthcare and of caring for our bodies. We educate ourselves when we shop around for a car, we should do the same when it comes to caring for our bodies. We cannot afford to blindly and unquestioningly (is that a word?) follow any doctor's advice, or make decisions about our bodies simply based on what everyone else is doing - it can, for some, cost us our health, or sometimes even our lives.

Sarah Howe

Thank you for the important information on the effects of yoga to the body and mind in relation to breast health. As a yoga teacher I will share these statistics with my students and as an athlete, while I attempt the 3 Day Walk for breast cancer in Boston, my thoughts will be with all those that have been touched by this disease.

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