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For many years the expectation was that one in nine women in the UK and the USA would be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Now the British charity Cancer Research has announced that the rate of breast cancer is on the rise in Britain.

One in Eight British Women Will be Diagnosed with Breast Cancer in Her Lifetime

Breast cancer is by far the most common cancer among women in the UK, more than second-ranked colorectal or third-ranked lung cancer. About one-third of all cancer cases in the UK are breast cancer.

The greatest increase in breast cancer rates is being seen in women aged 50 to 69. Almost half of all breast cancer cases occurred among women in this breast group. Women younger than 50 accounted for about a third of all cases, while women over 70 were much less likely to be diagnosed with the disease.

The increase in breast cancer rates comes in the face of years of national campaigns to urge Britons to eat better and smoke less, and to be sure to get regular checkups. So what is the advice for healthy living now?

Women in the United Kingdom are now being told that excessive drinking is an important contributing factor in the risk for breast cancer. The British National Health Service advises all women to drink less than "14 units" per week, roughly equivalent to a pint of beer, glass of wine, or single stiff drink a day.

Previously women have been told to lose weight, eat more fiber, and to avoid fatty foods. Cancer rates after national advice campaigns to change lifestyles, however, seem to have resulted only in more cancer. So should women just let go and do whatever they like?

Medication as the Most Important Risk Factor for Breast Cancer

Some of the most important risk factors for breast cancer are actually iatrogenic, that is, they are caused by the unintended actions of doctors. Hormone replacement therapy, for instance, raises the risk of breast cancer by 66 per cent, and the increased risk continues for five years after hormone replacement therapy is stopped.

Using oral contraceptives increases breast cancer risk by 25 per cent. The rationale for continuing their use in spite of much higher cancer rates is that users are younger and at lower risk than women aged 50 to 60. However, women under 50 have breast cancer rates that are about the same as women over 50, when all ages are considered.

And how much good does eating lots of crunchy carrots and celery and making a habit of eating a breakfast of bran flakes do women seeking to prevent breast cancer? The National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study of diet and breast cancer among American women concluded flatly, "Fiber from grains, fruit, vegetables, and beans was not related to breast cancer. " In fact, the study suggested that it was possible that eating more fiber increased the risk of breast cancer. The findings were inconclusive one way or the other.

And it turns out that the critical link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer isn't number of drinks per week—it's blood alcohol levels. Keeping blood alcohol levels below 0.06% (two drinks at a time for most women) keeps estrogen receptors from being stimulated.

Much of the publicity of breast cancer prevention programs seems to have been designed to shift the blame for breast from the drugs that actually cause it to the women that get it. Women who want to prevent breast cancer in their 50's should first seek to remedy the hormonal imbalances caused by commonly accepted medical treatments.

  • Park Y, Brinton LA, Subar AF, Hollenbeck A, Schatzkin A. Dietary fiber intake and risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women: the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Sep, 90(3):664-71. Epub 2009 Jul 22.
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