Despite medical advances that have made it easier to detect and treat cancers, breast cancer is still one of the leading causes of death among women. With breast cancer so prevalent, women and advocates are using October to bring awareness to the factors that increase a woman's risk of developing the disease. In recent years the focus has been on genetic factors, like the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but because those genes only affect a small segment of the population, another focus has been on secondary health issues. Sit with us as we take a closer look at some of those secondary health issues and how they may potentially increase your chances of developing breast cancer.
Hypertension and Breast Cancer
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is not considered a risk factor for breast cancer. However, certain medications used to treat hypertension could be problematic.
In a study conducted by the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, scientists discovered an increased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women with high blood pressure, who took calcium channel blockers for 10 years or more. Interestingly, long-term use of other hypertension medications, like beta blockers, and diuretics, did not produce the same breast cancer risk.
This discovery is important because blood pressure drugs are the most commonly prescribed medications in the US, and nearly 98 million of those prescriptions are for calcium channel blockers. Now that doctors are aware that calcium channel blockers can increase the risk of breast cancer, they may be more likely to prescribe safer types of medications, especially for long-term use.
Hormone Issues and Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is highly responsive to estrogen, the female sex hormone that has many functions, including controlling lactation and other changes in the breasts. Women who take estrogen-based medications, or who have a hormonal imbalance that causes them to produce too much estrogen, could be at greater risk for developing breast cancer. This is true of menopausal women on hormone replacement therapy, and of pre-menopausal women taking oral contraceptives.
Interestingly, although hormone use can increase your risk for breast cancer, it could actually lower your risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer. Additionally, your breast cancer risk can drop up to 10 years after you stop taking the hormones.
If you are using oral contraceptives for something other than birth control—such as for treating endometriosis or preventing migraines—or if you are on hormone replacement therapy, consult with your physician about your breast cancer risk, and possible alternative therapies.
Alcohol Consumption and Breast Cancer
According to Harvard University, while consuming small amounts of alcohol can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, the high quantities of alcohol associated with alcoholism could put you at even greater risk. One theory is that alcohol raises estrogen levels. Another suggestion is that alcohol negatively interacts with carcinogens or inhibits the body’s ability to fight off the carcinogens. Yet another hypothesis associates alcohol with folic acid deficiencies as a possible cause for the increased risk of breast cancer.
The Harvard School of Public Health recommends that women who have a folic acid deficiency and consume alcohol, get at least 600 micrograms of folic acid per day to offset the deficiency. They also recommend that you consume no more than one alcoholic beverage per day.