Reducing Cancer Risk – Practicing What I Preach

One of the most common questions I get asked by patients is, “Is there anything I can do to reduce my chances of getting cancer?”  My response is always the same, “Live a healthy lifestyle. Eat healthy and exercise.”  Now, that won’t necessarily mean that you won’t get cancer, but it is one of the few things you can control to reduce your risk of getting cancer.  The majority of my patients are overweight and that is definitely a risk factor for breast cancer as well as a whole host of other diseases that can kill you.  Also, being healthier allows you to recover sooner from necessary surgeries and tolerate treatments better.

But it’s easy for me to tell someone to lose weight, be healthy and exercise.  I myself have never had a weight issue so I don’t know the struggles that come with trying to lose weight.  But after living at my dad’s house for 3 weeks where I had no control over what there was to eat and a road trip where every meal was either fast food or eating out, I ended up in Houston feeling completely disgusted with myself and ready for a fresh healthy start.  After all, shouldn’t I practice what I preach?

Cover of "This Is Why You're Fat (And How...

Cover via Amazon

I recently read Jackie Warner’s “This Is Why You’re Fat” book after having bought some of her workout videos.  Her book talks about how the foods you eat affect the hormones in your body, including human growth hormone, testosterone, estrogen and insulin.  It made me realize that although I am not fat, I would still benefit in many ways by eating in a manner that would keep others thin.

Let’s face it, us women have a hard time taking care of ourselves.  I often ask my patients, “How come you haven’t come for a mammogram in 4 years?”  Has it been that long?  I’ve been so busy I didn’t even realize!  As I remind my patients the importance of taking care of themselves first so they can continue taking care of others, I am now realizing that I too need to do the same thing for my family.

So let me share some of the things I am doing to take that step towards healthier living:

1. Always eat breakfast and have some sort of protein at breakfast. (This usually means eggs or a protein shake.)  Breakfast is the most important meal.  Studies have shown that by adding breakfast into your eating regimen you can increase your metabolism.

2. Don’t have any junk food in our pantry.  That means no cookies, no chips, etc.  I do still indulge in Healthy Choice fudge bars (100 calories, 5 gm of sugar) and 25 calorie fruit bars made with Splenda.  Those make my kids happy enough not to complain.

3. Eat more protein and less white carbs (potatoes, white rice, pasta).  This is supposed to help balance your insulin levels.  In college I had started the Zone diet which was based on balancing your insulin levels.   Prior to starting the diet, I always fell asleep in my afternoon lectures.  But after the diet, I was able to stay awake no problem!  I totally believe that the post lunch sugar crash was the cause of my inability to stay awake in the afternoons.  As a result, I have been incorporating whole wheat bread, whole wheat tortillas, whole wheat pasta, brown rice and quinoa as my carbohydrate staples.  I can’t give up carbs completely!

4.  Eat fish at least once a week.  This is a source of protein in my diet and provides the healthy Omega 3 fatty acids which are good for your heart.

5.  Take a daily vitamin.  For some reason, I just keep forgetting to pop those pills.  I don’t know if I subconsciously don’t like the idea of having to take a pill.  But I do it for my kids, so why shouldn’t I do it for myself?

6.  Drink lots of water.  I am just really bad at doing this.  If it’s not in front of me, I don’t think to go and get it and I can go a whole day without drinking much.  I literally need a bottle attached to my arm…

7. No more excuses about working out. I am going to try to devote 15-20 min to some form of exercise every day.  Jackie Warner has a great DVD with 15 min workouts you can do at home.  Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred workouts are 20 min long.  When you think about 15-20 min, it doesn’t seem like much time, does it?

8. Get a good night’s sleep.  I like to stay up late at night.  In fact, several of my posts have been written close to midnight.  It’s the only time I have to myself.  Unfortunately, I am still getting up when my kids get up.  Ultimately, I am depriving my body of its time to recover from the stresses that it goes through on any particular day.  After a while, it will take its toll…

Just so you know, I have been trying to implement these for the past 2-3 weeks.  I am doing well with 1-4 but still working on 5-8.  It’s not easy to make so many changes but I already feel better doing some of the above.  Eventually, I hope to be able to say I do everything above.  It’s okay if it takes time to get there, as long as I get there.  By then, several of those should become second nature.  But until then, I will have to remind myself of those goals and what it will do for my well being and how that will make me a better mother, wife and doctor.   That is the best motivation.

Why I am here

This past weekend there was an article published in the New York Times Magazine by Peggy Orenstein titled “The Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer.”  I was warned by a colleague to be prepared to address the article with patients.  So, on Sunday night after my girls went to bed, I looked it up on the internet and read it.

I immediately had mixed feelings about it.  There are some things I agree with and some things I disagree with.  But my concern was mostly about how women might react to such a piece.  As with most articles I read on the internet, I continued on to the comments section.  As expected, many breast cancer patients described their experiences, some with good results, many with bad results.  There were also some people who described facing the possibility of having breast cancer, ultimately ending up with benign results, and how that experience negatively affected them.

Although I did see a rare post from a radiologist defending mammograms and the need for biopsies and surgery, there is very little out there about what it is really like to be in our shoes.  Every day, we sit here examining numerous mammograms, trying to determine whether or not we should call someone back for additional views.  Could that be a cancer?  Or when we see something we are not sure of, do we biopsy or watch it?  Our patients’ lives rest in our hands and our decision at this moment could mean the difference between someone having cancer and doing well versus someone having cancer and ultimately dying from it.

Part of my job includes performing biopsies and giving the results.  I have told many women that they have breast cancer.  Fortunately, I have been able to tell many women that there are reasons to stay positive.  But like the article describes, there are still many women I cannot tell that to, and some I know have not done well.  There are many times I have wanted to cry with the patients but because of professionalism, I hold back the tears.  But I am right there with them feeling the sadness, the disappointment that I couldn’t find this earlier, and the fear of what their future holds.

I have had so many experiences with patients that have changed my outlook on life in so many ways.  After reading several blogs of breast cancer patients, I thought to myself, “It might be nice to share some of my experiences with other people.”  Perhaps, it might be reassuring to some patients to know that we (as breast radiologists) are on their side.

That is why I am here.