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February is Heart Awareness Month!

Red puzzle heart with stethoscope on brown wooden backgroundHeart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for women in the United States, killing one in every three females. These are your mothers, sisters, daughters and best friends. Women’s health must be a priority and heart disease cannot be overlooked—it’s not a “man’s disease” as once thought by so many.

Do you know the symptoms of heart attacks for women?

Heart Attack Symptoms For Women

The American Heart Association lists the following symptoms as the main heart attack indicators for women.

  • Focused in the chest, an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, pain or fullness. The feeling(s) may last several minutes and then go away, only to return.
  • Pain and/or discomfort in the arms (one or both)
  • Pain and/or discomfort in other areas such as the stomach, back, neck and jaw.
  • Difficulty breathing/shortness of breath, with or without discomfort or pain.
  • Lightheadedness and nausea.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat.

It’s extremely important to note that women can and do experience heart attacks without having any chest pressure or pain, the most common heart attack symptom for men. A women’s heart attack is not a man’s heart attack, which is why it makes it critical to know and to be able to recognize these symptoms.

Important: Please contact 9-1-1 and get to a hospital if you experience any of these symptoms or suspect that you may be having a heart attack.

The American Heart Association urges everyone to remember, “women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.”

What Causes a Heart Attack?

When your heart can’t get oxygen because blood flow has been blocked, a heart attack happens. Typically, this occurs as a result of coronary heart disease, states the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute ( NHLBI). A heart attack also may happen when a coronary artery spasms severely. The spasm cuts off blood flow through the artery and causes a heart attack. This type of heart attack may be caused by a reaction to a specific drug, cigarette smoking, severe emotional stress or pain and even exposure to extreme cold temperatures. Unfortunately, 64% of women who die from heart disease show no previous symptoms. This is what experts call, silent coronary heart disease.

How to Prevent (Silent) Heart Attacks?

Several factors can increase your risk for heart disease, which can lead to a life-threatening heart attack. This include but are not limited to:

  • High blood pressure
  • High LDL cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Poor dietary choices
  • Physical inactivity
  • Alcohol abuse or overuse
  • Smoking and drug use

If you have any of these risk factors, talk to your doctor for recommendations on how to lower your risk for heart disease and potentially fatal heart attacks.

Any women who finds herself experiencing one or more of the heart attack symptoms listed above, should immediately get help. Don’t brush your symptoms off as the flu or your imagination. Your health is important. You are important.

Learn How To Cope With Stress

iStock_000018547652_FullHave you felt like there are not enough hours in the day, unexpected bills keep coming, or your career responsibilities are too demanding? How do you react to all these family, financial or personal situations? Have you felt as you are going to collapse at any moment? We have all been involved in these stressful and difficult situations at some point of our lives. But how is this affecting our health? And how can we handle it?

There is no question that stress can result in harmful effects to our bodies. Though little evidence exists about any direct cause-effect relationship between stress and breast cancer or heart disease, excessive stressful situations can lead to unhealthy behaviors that will contribute to risk factors of these diseases. For example, people trying to ‘manage/cope’ with stress often engage in behaviors like smoking, drinking alcohol, physical inactivity and overeating. Unhealthy stress management responses like these will increase our blood pressure and cholesterol levels. What are some healthier ways to manage stress? Let’s take a look:

Usually people relate the word ‘stress’ to something negative. However, feeling stressed is completely normal. In fact, certain amounts of stress can turn out to be positive – it all depends on how you cope with it. Our body is designed to manage some level of stress (i.e. stress that helps you get to work at a certain time). Achieving an optimal level of stress can even be motivational, increase your memory, boost your immune system and help you focus on important tasks.

Of course, our bodies are not made to handle chronic stress. Chronic stress makes us feel tired, depressed, angry, forgetful, out of control, or anxious. You might also experience headaches, back strain, or stomach pains. While we all perceive and handle stress in various ways, the key is to figure out what triggers your over-stress and how to cope with it.

Here are some great ways that may help you:

1. GET ACTIVE: Exercise! Whether it’s a walk, a swim or yoga, physical activity will increase endorphins – the hormones that make you feel good. Lifting weights will help you drain accumulated tension. Being regularly active will also reduce your risk for developing breast cancer or heart disease.

2. BE POSITIVE: Be self-confident. Welcome good humor. This will help you calm down, relax, and control stress. Try to turn any negative thinking into positive thinking!

3. BE PROUD: Don’t try to be perfectionist, nobody is. Just be proud of who you are.

4. QUIT SMOKING: Even though many people see smoking as a stress reliever, studies have shown that smoking causes more stress than it relieves. Smoking is a short-term fix with many long-term health problems as a result.

5. LIMIT ALCOHOL AND CAFFEINE INTAKE: Excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption can aggravate stress and even trigger panic attacks. It can also increase your blood pressure. Instead, try substituting these for decaf coffee or tea and limiting alcohol consumption.

6. REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT! Focus on eating energy-boosting foods like fruits and snacks containing omega-3, like nuts. Incorporate unsaturated fats (good fats) like avocado, salmon and seeds. Consume lots of vegetables and be sure to eat whole grain foods. Don’t skip meals and don’t wait more than four hours without eating. Never forget that maintaining a healthy diet is key to living a healthy lifestyle, thus reducing your risk for breast cancer and heart disease.

7. CHEW GUM: Reach for a stick of gum! Studies have shown that it helps reduce cortisol levels and as such, stress. Go for “Sugar-Free” options to avoid increased sugar intake.

8. CALL A FRIEND: This will calm you down and allow you to share your feelings, often relieving some of the pressure.

9. SLEEP: Try to sleep 6-8 hours each night. Studies have shown that people who sleep less have reduced insulin levels and increased levels of cortisol, which increases appetite. Your metabolism will become slower and stress will increase.

10. ACCEPT THAT YOU CANNOT CONTROL EVERYTHING

11. RELAX: Listen to calming music, reading a book, doing yoga and breathing deeply for a few minutes each day are just a few ideas.

12. LAUGH: Studies have proven that laughing releases “happiness hormones” (such as dopamine) and decreases cortisol and adrenaline levels, making your nervous system know that you are happy!

Sources: American Heart Association, Reader’s Digest, Smokefree Women, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, National Cancer Institute

Shared Risk Factors of Breast Cancer & Heart Disease

A risk factor is a variable associated with an increased risk of disease such as breast cancer or heart disease. Breast cancer and heart disease each have several risk factors independent of one another; however, both diseases also share many of the same risk factors in women.

The following are shared risk factors in women for breast cancer and heart disease:
  • Family history
  • Age
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Night-shift work (due to disrupting the circadian rhythm and potential suppression of melatonin, linked to tumor development)
Some of these risk factors, such as family history and age, women have little/no control over.  However, leading a healthy lifestyle including a well-balanced diet (fruits, vegetables, proteins) and regular exercise as well as not smoking and limiting alcohol consumption are choices a woman can make to help lower her risk of developing breast cancer and heart disease. Having a risk factor does not mean a woman will get a disease and not all risk factors affect individual women to the same extent. Contact your doctor to learn more about your risk factors for the development of breast cancer and heart disease. (Sources: American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Cancer Society)

Good Habits for Breast Health at Every Age

A woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is approximately one in eight. In addition to following the early detection guidelines, there are habits women should pick up to protect themselves against increasing their risk of developing breast cancer. The following tips for women are meant to help you protect your breast health while monitoring any changes . This way, problems can be caught early. Early detection has been shown to be a key factor in surviving a breast cancer diagnosis. You’re In Your 20s The habits you develop in your 20s can help reduce your lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. 
  1. Get a clinical breast exam and become breast aware. A clinical breast exam is a physical breast exam performed by a medical professional. During your 20s, a clinical breast exam and discussion about your overall health and personal risk factors is a good way to take stock of what’s “normal” for you. The American Cancer Society recommends that women receive a clinical breast exam every three years in their 20s and 30s. Some doctors consider breast self-exams optional, but it’s a smart idea to be familiar with your breasts so that you will notice any small changes which you’ll want to bring to the attention of your doctor.
  2. Find out if you are high risk. If breast cancer runs in your family, you’ll want to discuss with your doctor a personal plan for understanding your risk. For example, you may want to consider being tested for the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 gene mutations, which are linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.
  3. Drink less alcohol. Dr. Anne McTiernan, the author of “Breast Fitness: An Optimal Exercise and Health Plan for Reducing Your Risk of Breast Cancer” advocates no more than one drink per day. Alcohol use increases your risk for breast cancer. McTiernan notes that one drink a day does not mean you can abstain all week and drink a week’s worth of drinks on Saturday night.
  4. New moms should breastfeed for at least six months. Some studies suggest that breastfeeding may slightly lower breast cancer risk, specifically for women who breast feed for one and a half to two years.  A study released by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center showed breastfeeding six months or longer reduced breast cancer risk by 20 percent.
  5. Exercise and eat right! Exercising at least 30 minutes per day, whether it’s by walking, biking, jogging, dancing or any other physical activity can reduce your breast cancer risk by about 20 percent. Plus, it’s a habit that is good for your bones, joints, heart and overall health. Eating healthy means limiting your intake of red meat to four ounces per day on average and avoiding processed meats like sausage and bologna. In addition, the National Cancer Institute has for years recommended eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
You’re In Your 30s Although breast cancer rates for women in their 30s are still pretty low, it’s time to start monitoring your breasts for changes. Cultivating breast health awareness is key in this decade. In addition to continuing the healthy habits you cultivated in your 20s, there are a few more things you can consider: 
  1. Get a clinical breast exam and become breast aware. Continuing to receive clinical breast exams every three years while in your 30s is part of the American Cancer Society’s early detection guidelines.
  2. Evaluate your risk to determine a plan of action. Monitor your own breasts for changes and report any concerns to your doctor. If you’re in a high risk group due to family history, your doctor may want you to start getting annual mammograms or MRIs. Additionally, your doctor can
  3. Keep stress in check. A recent study in Israel of women under 45 found that exposure to several stressful life events, such as divorce or death of parents, was associated with breast cancer. Cultivating happiness and optimism boosts your natural defense against illness. Simply adopting a “don’t worry, be happy” mantra won’t protect you from cancer, but a positive outlook will help you stick to all the other good habits you’ve developed, contributing to an overall healthy lifestyle.
You’re In Your 40s When you hit 40, you really need to start being vigilant about your health. At this point in life, breast cancer rates start to increase. In addition to limiting alcohol, eating right, exercising and limiting stress, remember to do the following:
  1. Schedule an annual mammogram and clinical exam. The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 40 and older get a mammogram and a clinical breast exam every year. Also, stay familiar with your own breasts: If you notice any changes, tell your doctor about them immediately. Chances are good that any changes you notice, such as fibrocystic breast changes, are harmless, but it’s still essential to have anything new or unusual checked out.
  2. Avoid unnecessary exposure to cancer-causing substances. This includes radiation and chemicals. Make sure that any physician who orders an x-ray for you, especially high dose types like CT scans, knows how many other xrays you’ve had. Unless it’s an emergency situation, you should ask if there are alternative examinations for your situation, such as an ultrasound or MRI. Your doctor will help you weigh the relative risk of momentary exposure to radiation versus not having an X-ray or CT scan that may be medically necessary. Scientists have identified over 200 potential breast carcinogens. Learn about them through the American Cancer Society’s analysis. Opt for foods and products containing mostly natural ingredients.
If You’re In Your 50s and Over As menopause hits, the risk of developing breast cancer rises. The average age of a woman who receives a breast cancer diagnosis is 62, which is why women in their 60s need to be more vigilant than ever about breast health. Taking care of your health beginning at age 50 is critical to reducing your risk of developing breast cancer. In addition to continuing to receive annual mammograms, eating right and staying active, there are a few additional habits you can pick up to reduce your risk of a breast cancer diagnosis.
  1. Avoid alcohol as much as possible.  A recent National Cancer Institute study of postmenopausal women found that women who had one to two small drinks a day were 32 percent more likely to develop the most common type of breast cancer. Women who had three drinks or more had as high as 51 percent increased risk.
  2. Maintain a healthy body weight. A healthy weight is a body mass index (BMI) of 25 percent or less. Research has shown that being overweight or obese (specifically in post menopausal women) increases your risk, even if you put the weight on as an adult. Additionally, overweight women had lower breast cancer survival rates and a greater chance of more aggressive disease than average weight or underweight women.
  3. Avoid or limit hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Hormone replacement therapy definitely increases breast cancer risk, although for women with major menopausal issues, doctors at the Fred Hutchison Cancer recommend limited courses of HRT for no more than five years.
  4. Up your vitamin D intake. Although the recommended daily allowance of vitamin D is 400 IUs, some researchers think that higher levels – 1,000 IUs a day – is a convenient and low cost way to reduce breast cancer risk. To check your levels of vitamin D, ask your doctor for a blood test. He or she will help you determine if a supplement would be beneficial for you.
No matter what your age, the habits you develop to stay healthy also help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. While eating right, exercising and following the guidelines for early detection don’t guarantee that you won’t develop breast cancer, they are good habits to improve your life overall and limit unnecessary increases to your breast cancer risk.

The Chemical Connection – Protecting Yourself

There is a link between environmental chemicals and breast cancer. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself. While there are several known risk factors for breast cancer – obesity, alcohol use and genetic factors to name a few – some risk factors are still being researched. Scientists are studying the connection between chemicals and breast cancer. Though many studies are inconclusive, there have been some important findings about everyday products and their relationship to breast cancer risk. Women expose themselves to chemicals and toxins every day through products they put on their bodies, cleaners they use in and around the home, chemicals they breathe on the job, and even the foods they eat! Now, eating certain foods or cleaning the house is not going to be the sole reason a woman develops breast cancer, but chemicals may increase the risk of abnormal cell development, which may or may not result in cancer. Prevention is all about making choices that reduce breast cancer risk. Let’s take a closer look at some everyday chemicals and how they relate to breast cancer. Cigarette Smoke and Breast Cancer A number of studies have examined the possible connection between smoking and breast cancer. While the majority of these studies have found that smoking is actually not a breast cancer cause and doesn’t increase risk, a few studies have identified a relationship between the two. In 2006, the U.S. Surgeon General’s report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, found that smoking was linked with not only breast cancer, but also a diagnosis of breast cancer at an unusually young age — younger than age 55. Both mainstream and secondhand smoke contain chemicals that, in high concentrations, cause breast cancer in rodents. Chemicals in tobacco smoke reach breast tissue and are found in breast milk. In any case, this possible link to breast cancer is yet another reason to avoid smoking and/or secondhand smoke. BPA and Breast Cancer Bisphenol-A, or BPA, is a chemical found in many plastic products, including baby bottles, nipples, and pacifiers. It’s already been established that BPA affects the endocrine system and hormones, and now studies are showing that BPA may also be associated with increased breast cancer risk. Research studies have shown that exposure to BPA in babies led to increased breast cell growth and some loss of normal cell death, which could allow abnormal cells to grow. As research continues to point to the harmful effects of BPA on humans, it’s best to avoid them. Many manufacturers have stopped using BPA. Look for plastics labeled “BPA-free” to limit your exposure to this dangerous chemical. Pesticides and Breast Cancer Many pesticides have properties similar to estrogen, which allows breast cancer cells to replicate rapidly and the disease to spread. It seems probable therefore that these chemicals could increase breast cancer risk, although studies have been unable to definitively prove the connection. One study showed that older women exposed to the pesticide DDT and similar compounds were slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than women who weren’t exposed. Researchers couldn’t conclude that the pesticides are a breast cancer cause, but they did find that continued exposure to pesticides along with other risk factors for breast cancer could increase the risk of developing the disease. Parabens and Breast Cancer Parabens are preservatives found in cosmetics, skin care products and antiperspirants. They have been linked to breast cancer because a small study cited by the American Cancer Society found parabens in breast cancer cells. The study could not prove that the parabens caused the cells to develop into tumors or whether other factors besides use of cosmetics could have led to the presence of parabens. Further study is needed to prove or rule out parabens as a possible risk factor or cause of breast cancer, and parabens are not considered a health risk at this time. Women seeking to limit parabens in their beauty routine should look for products labeled “paraben free.” Protecting Yourself Even after decades of research, no one can definitively answer the question “What causes breast cancer?” Many of the studies being conducted regarding chemical exposure and breast cancer risk don’t have concrete answers yet. Prevention, simply put, is about limiting potential risk factors. Many of the chemicals listed are harmful in other ways, so limiting exposure to them is a good idea, even if the breast cancer link is in question. Furthermore, if you are at an increased risk of breast cancer based on known factors, you may want to take extra precaution to avoid being around these potentially toxic chemicals to protect yourself from breast cancer as much as possible.

Young Women and Breast Cancer

Understanding hereditary and genetic risk factors

Stephanie Green

On January 9, 2011, Stephanie Green, a Miami-based blogger and writer lost her battle against breast cancer at the young age of 35. Stephanie left behind her blog, a book in the works and numerous other articles and stories that touched thousands of her fans. Stephanie fought to the very end, often using her writing as a way to cope with the disease.  A long-time contributor to HEEB magazine, Stephanie was Ashkenazi Jewish and BRCA1 positive. Ashkenazi Jewish women have a one in 40 chance of inheriting the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. These genes are important in the development of breast cancer. Women with the mutation have up to an 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. Why do young women get breast cancer? When referring to a breast cancer diagnosis, “young” typically means anyone under 40 years old because breast cancer is relatively uncommon among women in this age group. In the U.S., about 5 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses occur in women under age 40. Of the women who are diagnosed at a younger age many, like Stephanie, have a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. If a woman carries a defective BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, she may have a 30 to 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute. Having an immediate family member who has or had breast cancer also increases the risk of developing breast cancer in young women. So although young women generally have a much lower risk of developing breast cancer, the risk is high for women who have the gene mutation or have family history. Advice for all young women Clinical breast exams are recommended for all women at least every three years, starting at age 20, and every year for women age 40 or over. If you are under 40, and have a family history or other known risk factors, talk with your health care provider to assess your risk, and determine a personalized plan of when to start having mammograms or other imaging tests. Diagnosing breast cancer in young women can be harder because of the density of a young woman’s breast tissue. By the time a lump can be felt in a young woman, it is often large enough and advanced enough to lower her chances of survival. In addition, the cancer may be more aggressive and less responsive to hormone therapies. If you are concerned about a genetic risk, you can ask for a referral to a genetic counselor who can provide genetic testing, screening tests, like MRI, or risk reduction options that might be right for you. In addition to talking with your doctor about your risk, it is equally important to know how your breasts normally look and feel. See your health care provider right away if you notice any of these breast changes: • Lump, hard knot or thickening • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening • Change in the size or shape of the breast • Dimpling or puckering of the skin • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple • Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly • New pain in one spot that doesn’t go away Awareness and early detection are two of the most important tools we have to fight breast cancer. For more information on breast self-awareness, visit www.flbreasthealth.com for an online beast health tutorial.