Help At Your Fingertips

Be active and keep cancer at bay

Walk, cycle or dance... by staying physically active, women can lower the risk of breast cancer

Studies have found a link between breast cancer and the lack of physical activity.

The United States-based National Cancer Institute said most studies suggest 30 to 60 minutes of moderate- to high-intensity physical activity a day may lower the risk of breast cancer.

Dr Radhika Lakshmanan, a breast surgeon at Parkway East Hospital, shares some tips:

BE ACTIVE

Pre- and post-menopausal women should stay physically active and even light activities, such as walking, help.

  • How to do the breast self-examination

  • Women should perform breast self-checks once a month, said Dr Esther Chuwa, a breast surgeon at Gleneagles Medical Centre.

    "While mammograms may detect cancer before a lump is felt, breast self-checks help you to be familiar with how your breasts look and feel so that you can alert your doctor if there are any changes," she said.

    WHEN TO DO THE CHECK

    Pre-menopausal women should do the check one week after the start of their monthly periods, when their breasts are least tender.

    Post-menopausal women and women who do not have a regular monthly menstruation cycle can do the check on a fixed day of the month.

    HOW TO DO THE CHECK

    Look: Stand in front of a mirror with your arms by your side and look at your breasts. Next, raise both arms high overhead. Look for any changes or asymmetry between both breasts in the contour, skin colour, swelling, dimpling of the skin, or changes in the nipples. Finally, with arms akimbo, press firmly to tighten your chest muscles, which accentuates any abnormality.

    Feel: Lying down, use the pads of your first three fingers to feel the entire breast with light to firm pressure. Check for lumps and any thickening in the entire breast area and the underarm tissues.

    Squeeze: Squeeze the nipples to check for discharge. Take note of the nature and colour of the discharge, if any.

    Joyce Teo

Moderate-intensity activities include brisk walking, leisurely cycling, yoga, dancing as well as gardening.

Vigorous activities include jogging, swimming and aerobics.

High levels of these activities during adolescence may provide extra protection.

KNOW YOUR FAMILY CANCER HISTORY

About 5 to 10 per cent of breast cancer is caused by abnormal genes that have been passed on.

People in this high-risk group should start screening a decade before the age that the family member was diagnosed with breast cancer.

So, if your mother was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 40, you should start your screening at 30.

A blood test can be done to screen for inherited breast cancer genes BRCA 1 and BRCA 2.

However, the test is expensive - it is not subsidised or covered by MediShield. If the results are positive, there are a few options.

You can choose to be screened more frequently to catch any cancer occurrence early. Some women make the difficult decision of having preventive mastectomies.

KEEP YOUR WEIGHT IN CHECK

Being overweight after menopause raises a woman's risk of breast cancer.

After menopause, a woman's estrogen - which can promote breast cancer cell growth - comes mainly from fat tissue, instead of the ovaries.

Fat cells can produce estrogen. Extra fat cells means extra estrogen.

The incidence of both breast cancer and obesity in women is on the rise but there is no local data to correlate the two yet.

BREASTFEED

Breastfeeding helps to protect against breast cancer, if it is done for at least six months to a year.

A woman's chances of developing breast cancer becomes lower the longer she continues with breastfeeding.

Most women who breastfeed experience hormonal changes during lactation that delay their menstrual periods. This reduces their lifetime exposure to estrogen.

Breastfeeding also causes breast cells to mature. Some studies show that mature cells are more resistant to being transformed into cancer cells.

EAT FRUIT AND VEGETABLES

Many studies found a lower risk of breast cancer in those who have a high intake of fruit and vegetables. These are rich in antioxidants, which tend to fight cancer cells. For overall well-being, a balanced diet is best.

DRINK MODERATELY, IF AT ALL

One drink a day, such as a can of beer, is considered a safe limit for women. But if drunk regularly, this can still put one at an increased risk of breast cancer.

As alcohol may raise estrogen levels,women should take no more than two drinks a week.

DO NOT SMOKE

Studies show that breast cancer rates are higher among women smokers and the risk goes up for those who have been smoking for more than 10 years.

GO FOR SCREENING

This helps to detect cancer early when it is most treatable. Stage 0 breast cancer usually requires only surgery while the later stages of breast cancer usually involve a combination of treatments, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and oral medications, in addition to surgery.

Women above 40 are advised to go for yearly mammograms while those above 50 should get screened every two years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'Be active and keep cancer at bay'. Print Edition | Subscribe