Are You Making These Breast Health Mistakes?

Don’t make these breast health mistakes that put you at greater risk for breast cancer.

By Melissa Schorr

Mistake: Not Enlisting an Advocate

If you are called back for some not-so-good news, it’s a smart idea to bring along another set of ears: "Once I say, ‘All your hair is going to fall out,’ they don’t take in another word," oncologist Russell says. That’s why it’s crucial that you have a more clearheaded advocate, someone who can act as your note taker, strategist, even diplomat, when necessary. Recruit your spouse, a sibling, a close friend, but think twice about bringing an adult child along. Chances are good that you’ll try to protect them from bad news and won’t really hear what the doctor is telling you.

Mistake: Skipping Support

Will being in a support group save your life? Probably not. But avoiding one may cost you in other ways. Researchers have found benefits to joining up, from reducing your pain to improving your sex life. Women who have and maintain a rich support network — a group, a spouse, friends, a religious affiliation — may also have an easier time returning to their daily lives compared with isolated women, who also report less energy and more anxiety and depression, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research. "Support groups are invaluable," says Linette Atwood, a survivor and creator of The Patient Resource Cancer Guide. "To reach out to others who have gone before you gives you renewed strength to fight back."

Mistake: Not Keeping Tabs on Your Weight

There’s no clear consensus on what you should eat to better your odds. Some studies have shown that a low-fat diet can slightly reduce the risk of recurrence and that a high-fat diet slightly increases the risk of relapse. "However, studies haven’t been consistent, making it very frustrating for survivors," says Sandra Norman, PhD, a research associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. But the greatest danger, Norman says, may simply be gaining weight. Higher weight before diagnosis and weight gain after diagnosis are associated with both higher recurrence and mortality rates.

Mistake: Avoiding Exercise

After treatment, it’s more important than ever that you stay active. "When we say to exercise, it doesn’t mean running a marathon," explains Wendy Chen, MD, an oncologist at the Dana- Farber Cancer Institute, in Boston. Women who exercise (the equivalent of walking one to three hours a week at a moderate pace) have a 50 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer compared with those who don’t.

Physical activity may also ward off breast cancer by reducing estrogen levels or by simply helping to avoid weight gain, another known risk factor. And it’s also good for your mental health: Women who weight-trained twice a week following treatment reported feeling more confident and stronger. New research has shown that strength training does not trigger or aggravate lymphedema — a painful condition that causes swelling in the arm and torso in up to 50 percent of survivors. "Women should have appropriate professional supervision to begin weight training after breast cancer," says study leader Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH, an exercise physiologist at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia. "If you can’t afford a personal trainer, I’d go with a physical therapist [which may be covered by your insurance.]"

Mistake: Quitting Your Medications Too Soon

Tired of the pill popping, the co-pays, the side effects, or the daily reminder of their cancer battle, many women discontinue their medications prematurely. One study shows that just over a third of survivors stop taking tamoxifen well before the recommended five years. Don’t. Research indicates that tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors can cut the risk of cancer relapse by as much as 50 percent. "Talk to your doctor about why you don’t want to continue taking it," urges Ann Partridge, MD, an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Often, your physician can prescribe something to manage the side effects or find a way to defray costs.

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