It’s October. It’s breast cancer awareness month and women should be aware of their risk and how to take care of themselves to minimize the risk.
Women should also know that there is a bigger threat to their lives than breast cancer. In fact, this killer kills 6 times more women than all the cancers put together.
The number of women who die every year from either breast cancer or heart disease is too many. That’s the bad news. The good news is there are things we can do to reduce our risk of both deadly diseases. No, it’s not living a life of deprivation and strict rules. They’re things that can enhance our lives and increase our joy of life.
Do the four things (in order of importance) to protect your health:
- Manage stress
- Eat well
- Get quality sleep
1. Manage stress
Some cancer specialists compare cancer to wild fires. In other words, cancer happens when the conditions are right. If it’s been raining and the forest is damp, a lit match dropped in the forest fizzles and goes out. If there has been an extended dry spell that same lit match when dropped starts a fire where it lands and the fire quickly spreads out of control. That is a good way to understand how stress affects cancer and heart disease. It makes the conditions right in your body for “heart disease or cancer” to happen.
Anil K. Sood, M.D., professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at MD Anderson, explains, “Stress hormones can inhibit a process called anoikis, which kills diseased cells and prevents them from spreading. Chronic stress also increases the production of certain growth factors that increase your blood supply. This can speed the development of cancerous tumors,” he adds.
Many of us have a lot of stress in our lives and unless we move to a deserted island we won’t be able to escape it. That’s okay, it’s not escaping stress that is important; it’s learning how to manage it. Healthy coping skills are necessary and can be learned.
The importance of physical activity can be overstated. It is an important way to protect yourself from the risk of cancer, heart disease as well as other serious, chronic diseases. It doesn’t have to be boring or painful and everybody has time for regular physical activity.
Physical activity happens inside, and more importantly outside of the gym. Household chores, gardening, playing with dogs and children and every other thing that gets you up and moving counts. If you enjoy dancing, dance more. If you like to play basketball or bowl, join a league. The point is do more of every physical activity you love. Do it because it’s fun, not because you “should.”
Make it your goal to play more and sit less. We find time in our day for things that are important or we enjoy. Although most adults acknowledge that exercise is important, they don’t engage in exercise because they don’t like it. The oft-used excuse is, “not enough time.” Active play is a form of exercise that’s entertaining. Finding ways to get moving through enjoyable activities instantly frees up some time. Reducing long periods of sitting is especially important. If your job has you sitting all day, make it a point to get up and walk for 5 minutes of every hour.
3. Eat well
It ensures we get not only the vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants to protect us from heart disease and cancer but it also helps to regulate our blood sugar levels. Steady blood sugar levels provide lasting energy and help us to stay feeling comfortably satisfied longer after a meal rather than ragingly hungry less than an hour after having eaten.
It’s important to get adequate protein and healthy oils. Good protein sources include lean meat, poultry and fish. Healthy oils are unsaturated fats (vegetable oils), monounsaturated fat (olive and nut oils) and omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish such as salmon and sardines).
Eating well is eating all foods in balance and moderation. That means there are no forbidden foods or in other words no food is off limits. Every food is on the menu, but some foods are eaten less often and smaller portions. Other foods are enjoyed often and eaten in amounts to feel satisfied (not the same as “as much as you want.”)
4. Get quality sleep
Stress, a sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet are well-known factors in increasing cancer and heart disease risk, but we’re just learning how important sleep is to good health. We used to think a good night’s sleep was a luxury; it turns out it’s a necessity.
The link between heart disease and sleep has been recognized for decades. Poor sleeping habits increases blood pressure. Now studies are showing that lack of sleep can increase cancer risk too. A study in the International Journal of Cancer found a relationship between women’s irregular work schedules and the rate of breast cancer.
Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston found a correlation between risk of breast cancer and melatonin in 2003. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the body to promote continued sleep. When levels of melatonin decrease, the body produces more estrogen. Estrogen is a known risk factor for breast cancer.
A 2011 European Heart Journal review of 15 medical studies involving almost 475,000 people found that short sleepers had a 48% increased risk of developing or dying from coronary heart disease (CHD) in a seven to 25-year follow-up period (depending on the study) and a 15% greater risk of developing or dying from stroke during this same time. Interestingly, long sleepers — those who averaged nine or more hours a night — also showed a 38% increased risk of developing or dying from CHD and a 65% increased risk of stroke. more