The coronavirus pandemic is creating heartbreak and tragedy all over the world. But it will end. However, deaths from illnesses like cancer will not stop. You might be surprised to know that annually 11,500 women die of breast cancer in the UK. That's every year. And the cases of breast cancer continue to rise.
We also know that the people who are dying from COVID-19 seem to be those with underlying medical conditions, particularly heart disease and diabetes. These are conditions which can be reversed by lifestyle changes. And now most of us more time to dedicate to our own health and ultimately our future.
Prevention is better than cure
My mantra has always been that prevention is better than cure. For about the past 15 years I have talked to women about the things they can do to protect themselves against breast cancer, hoping this would empower them to take simple actions in their every day lives. I started my work as a social enterprise, Best Think Pink, when I developed a breast health presentation for the workplace and talked to hundreds of women about some of the following:
- Food and drink choices
- Exercise of all kinds
- Relaxation and managing stress
- Good quality sleep
- Reducing the use of synthetic hormones
- Avoiding hormone disrupting chemicals in everyday products
I then went on to work with Breast Cancer UK, the only breast cancer charity in the UK focused on primary prevention, ie helping fewer women get breast cancer in the first place rather than looking for a cure. I worked with the charity to set up a community of Ambassadors across the country who would talk to women about the same topics I had covered in my own presentations but obviously with a much greater reach than I could achieve on my own. I was lucky to work with the team at Breast Cancer UK for 3 years before they took the project inhouse.
When I started talking to women all those years ago, I think a lot of my audiences thought I was a bit 'alternative' shall we say! But now a lot of the things I spoke about, like eating freshly prepared meals focused on vegetables and wholegrains or avoiding using plastic bottles are now in the mainstream. It is a lot easier to be healthy these days and there is so much advice on how to do and a greater choice of products.
The amazing thing is this. If you follow the advice in relation to breast cancer prevention, it will make you a healthier person overall, creating a stronger immune system and your ability to fight disease of any kind.
I know this from personal experience as I used to have Crohns Disease, an autoimmune disease, which can take over the whole body not just the gut, resulting in weight loss, chronic fatigue, loss of mobility and often mental health issues. I got Crohns on my honeymoon after a bout of severe food poisoning from wild boar. After the initial episode, I took the medication I was told to and I got better for a few years. But I knew the chances were it would keep coming back during the rest of my life and I would be on a lifetime of medication. That's when I decided to take control of my own health and make some big changes to my life. It paid off! I have not had surgery like most Crohns patients do (80%) nor have I been on medication of any sort for over 12 years.
Eating the best quality food and limiting alcohol intake
The main advice I have always given is to avoid ready meals and processed foods, choosing to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients. This way you know exactly what you are eating and there are no hidden ingredients, which could be less than healthy. I have also eaten organic food for the past 15 years and I'm sure that this has contributed to my health. To me it is very simple. If we spray our food with chemicals which are designed to kill something living like a bee then how can we possibly think that these are not having an impact on our own health? I have also watched the increase in food intolerances over the years. Could this not be because some people's systems cannot tolerate these chemicals in our food? In fact, there is now evidence to support this in relation to gluten.
So my diet is built around vegetables and wholegrains like brown rice, spelt pasta, quinoa together with small amounts of fish and even less meat. I also do not eat dairy and only very small amounts of sugar (so maybe some 75% dark chocolate or maple syrup). All this food is organic. I also rely on probiotic supplements to support my gut health but I have a pre-existing condition so have to be more careful.
When I was diagnosed with Crohns nearly 30 years ago I was told that I could eat what I liked and that food had nothing to do with my condition. Fortunately, I couldn't believe this and decided to find out more for myself which is when I discovered organic food and how important food is for health.
Find the right exercise for you
Exercise is often the thing that falls off my list. I'm not naturally sporty and I certainly am not someone who would enjoy going to the gym! When I was young, I played tennis and did various types of dance like tap and flamenco. and then once I became a mum I took up Pilates and Nia, a cross between marshal arts and dance. I then joined a choir and this was my most enjoyable form of exercise as I find singing one of the most uplifting activities I do! I now do Qi Gong on a regular basis as well as walking and I still sing in the shower!
But everyone is different. What I like will not be right for everyone. The key to exercising consistently is choosing something that you enjoy and makes you feel good when you've done it. There's never been a wider choice and so many things are free like walking, gardening, running, singing!
We still need to learn more how stress affects our health
I've spoken to many women over the years who had breast cancer and so often it seemed that a traumatic event like a divorce or death in the family was the trigger for their cancer to manifest itself. In my opinion, it was the stressful event which was the final tipping point. I think this was true for me in the past when I had flare-ups of Crohns Disease. But since I changed my diet and started to exercise more, those stressful times (and there have still been some!) have not made me unwell.
We all have challenges to face in life and if our mental and physical health are at their best, we will be able to cope. We all know that the body is designed to heal itself - we cut ourselves and the wound heals. We are also learning that mental and physical health are intrinsically linked and that you can't just treat physical symtoms.
We know already that the coronavirus epidemic is causing a lot of anxiety and extra stress: worries about job security and future employment options; vulnerable relatives and friends; extra pressure around domestic abuse; people with existing medical conditions; or even just being stuck inside with your family for weeks!
We are not used to having to stay inside and avoid contact with people we love. That is why it is so important to feed our minds with positive messages and images. In these uncertain times, it's really easy to just sit and watch the news. I found myself doing that at the beginning and it definitely fuelled my feeling of worry and helplessness. I would recommend that you limit your 'news' to about half an hour a day. Also choose your source of news carefully - it's very easy to be drawn in by news on social media or messages from friends about the latest advice on coronavirus. I choose to use The Guardian for my daily updates and I am not involved in social media on a personal level, just for messaging friends and family. I also read Positive News, quarterly magazine, which doens't avoid the problems in the world but shows the amazing solutions which are being found. I find it so uplifting and inspirational.
I talked about exercise above and this is really important for stress relief as well. Singing is so therapeutic and makes you feel good whether you can sing well or not! You can still make a pledge to sing every day even if it's only in the shower! Lots of choirs like Rock Choir and Glee are still going using zoom to hold their weekly rehearsals.
There are also plenty of exercise videos circulating on the internet and you are still allowed to take your daily exercise outside. Plus we all have more time as we're not socialising, going shopping (except for food) or spending time travelling to work.
Sleep is when the body repairs
It is very important to get good quality sleep - when we sleep we give our bodies time to repair and restore. There are stats to show that a high percentage of people sleep badly. Do you get your regular 7-8 hours a night?
There is also a hormone called melatonin which regulates our night and day cycles. Melatonin levels are increased by sleeping in a darkened room. It's interesting to note that shift work is a risk factor for breast cancer and this could be due to the fact that people sleep during the day in a room which is not fully dark. There is also evidence to suggest that radiation from mobile devices and modern wi-fi TV’s can interfere with melatonin production.
So here are some ideas for getting a better night's sleep:
- Have a regular sleeping pattern and try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day
- Ban tech from the bedroom - no TV's and don't use your mobile or a laptop an hour before bedtime (try it and see!)
- Make sure your room is dark - invest in blackout curtains or blinds
- Try mindfulness before you go to sleep - there are many apps but this means that you are leaving your phone and WiFi on at night. See if you can find something that you can repeat yourself in your head.
The Pill and HRT are synthetic hormones
Most breast cancers are oestrogen driven and the Pill and HRT are synthetic hormones which are artificially controlling your hormone balance. The use of both does increase your breast cancer risk although HRT is the bigger concern and recent research has shown that it impacts on breast cancer risk more than previously thought.
Now of course I don't want to encourage unwanted pregnancies and we know that women rely on contraception. But it is worth finding out about the different types of contraception and finding out which suits you best. This is particularly relevant for daughters looking for their first form of contraception. You can also consider taking regular breaks from oral contraception if you feel it is safe to do so - to give your body time to adjust back to your natural hormone levels. It is worth bearing in mind that after you stop taking the Pill the risk of breast cancer is no longer evident 5-10 years later.
When it comes to taking HRT, I do understand that the menopause can be a terrible time for a lot of women and recently there has been a lot more discussion and openess around the subject, particularly in the workplace. However, I would always recommend that HRT is the last resort. I am going through menopause myself and I have tried lots of things which have worked for me. By the time we reach our fifties we have often got into bad habits and it is a good time to take stock anyway. Here are some ideas:
- You might be drinking too much coffee or eating too much sugary food.
- Try to wear cotton and natural fibres, particularly in bed
- You could try a wool duvet which will help to regulate your body temperature.
- Sleep with a window open.
- A health shop will give advice on natural remedies for the menopause.
The risk associated with HRT is no longer evident 5 years after stopping
Choose safe personal care and household products
This is an area which has been of most interest to me over the years and probably the subject about which people are less informed. As I've already said most breast cancers are hormone related (as are prostate and skin cancers) and there are common ingredients in lots of the products we use which are hormone disruptors. These are in cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products. One study from the US found that women who did their cleaning with the most harmful chemicals had a 25% increased risk of getting breast cancer. Not to mention allergy problems such as eczema and respiratory illnesses like asthma which are so common and are often linked to synthetic fragrance.
Now no one wants to be spending their time reading labels (which are impossible anyway as they are in special chemical terminology and for cleaning products they don't even have to list all of their ingredients). So I always recommend choosing certified organic brands as you know that they have been inspected and scrutinized by a third party. You can check out The Soil Association website for their licensees.
The time is now
As we now know, our health is the most important thing and perhaps we should be doing more to protect it. By being at home, we realise how little we can manage without and that the things we really need are food, relationships and things which make us laugh!