There are few types of cancers more scary or threatening to a woman than breast cancer. Not because it’s the worst kind, but because of the sheer prevalence of it in our society. Statistics show that about 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. How scary is that? In 2017 alone, an estimated 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer is expected to be diagnosed among U.S. women, along with 63,410 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer.
These alarming statistics are some of the reasons why there’s never enough research being put towards pinpointing an exact cause and finding a cure for breast cancer. Thankfully, a new study offers some hope. Scientists from Harvard have discovered that women who live in neighborhoods with higher levels of outdoor light during the night may have a greater risk for breast cancer.
These findings are based on decades-long research that has been advancing our understanding of risks to women’s health. The Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) followed 109,672 nurses for breast cancer occurrence between 1989 and 2013. By 2013, they had diagnosed 3,549 new cases of breast cancer, which is in-line with the standard statistics for breast cancer incidences. What stood out, however, was the direct relationship between nighttime light level and these women’s risk of developing breast cancer. It’s important to note, however, that this link was found only among the women who were premenopausal (the period of time just before menopause) and were current or past smokers. These are additional factors we’ve known to play a role in women’s breast cancer risk, along with number of children, weight and use of hormone medication.
Bottom line: Yes, this study is interesting and adds a strong piece of scientific evidence to the growing amount of evidence researchers have been collecting to support the connection to one or many causes of breast cancer. But before you go rallying for the late-night electric lights in your neighborhood to be turned off, it’s important to note that the nighttime light levels used in this study were recorded before any widespread use of “white” LED street lighting, which the American Medical Association has since come out about the potential dangers of.
Though much of it has to do with genetics, research shows that you can significantly lower your risk by living a healthier lifestyle. Here are three simple, but important, ways you can cut your breast cancer risk every day:
Seriously. I recommend my female patients limit their alcohol intake to three servings per week (men shouldn’t hover over the 6-7 mark). Alcohol is converted to sugar and sugar is one of the leading triggers of inflammation, which leads to a host of other health problems. It also places a burden on your liver and impairs detoxification, a key function in cancer prevention. Sure, go ahead and enjoy a glass of wine here and there, but be sure to find other remedies for unwinding after a long day. A relaxing bath with essential oils is a good one—or 20 minutes of meditation. Another goodie: Read a book before you hit the hay, like my most recent, Super Woman Rx, which will also help you determine how to best navigate your individual health journey.
Up your intake of orange foods
It’s important to eat a colorful diet, but carotenoid-rich foods in particular, which happen to have an orange hue) can put a serious dent in your breast cancer risk. In fact, studies show that those with the highest levels of carotenoids—think carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, winter squash—in the blood have a 20-30 percent reduced risk of breast cancer.
Don’t skimp on sleep
Seven to 9 hours of sleep a night, at least five nights, is absolutely essential for proper health, and it also plays a role in breast cancer prevention. Studies have found that shift workers tend to have an increased risk of breast cancer, as well as those who sleep in a room that’s not sufficiently dark (this may have foreshadowed the study mentioned above!).
Stay up-to-date with health visits
A few years ago, the American Cancer Society changed their mammogram guidelines to cater to a woman’s individual risk of breast cancer, instead of her age. I think this is so important, as we are all a different “type,” based upon or genetics, where we live, what we eat, how often we exercise, how many children we have, and the list goes on (more on these types in my book, Super Woman Rx!). It’s important to speak with your doctor about your medical history and incidences of breast cancer in your family (your dad’s mom counts too). In addition to scheduling your annual mammography (which detects lumps) and thermography (which measures inflammation, ask your doctor about yearly hormone tests to track your own unique fluctuations. And, as always, stay on top of your monthly self-exams—you are your best advocate first and foremost!