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Avoiding obesity more effective in fighting breast cancer than wearing pink?

In October - National Breast Cancer Awareness month, many people nationwide in the United States wear something pink to show their support for survivors, and help raise awareness of the disease, which is diagnosed in more than 175,000 women and kills 50,000 each year in the country.

The campaign has been around for 25 years and AstraZeneca HealthCare Foundation says on its website "the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month” organization is a partnership of national public service organizations, professional medical associations, and government agencies working together to promote breast cancer awareness, share information on the disease, and provide greater access to screening services."

The website provides lots of information about breast cancer regarding early diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, there is virtually no information about prevention.

We would remind our readers and those who are actively involved in the campaign that wearing pink can help raise awareness and encourage women to receive breast cancer screening, but it does little to prevent the disease in the first place.

It is important to remember that breast cancer in many cases is a preventable disease; following a healthy diet and lifestyle can reduce risk of breast cancer drastically, as numerous studies have suggested.

Most recently, we have reported that a low-fat diet, in tandem with a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids and low intake of an omega-6 fatty acid, and sufficient serum vitamin D may all help prevent breast cancer. Below are a couple of recent studies suggesting that avoiding overweight and obesity might also help.

Overweight and obesity raises risk of contralateral breast cancer

A recent study suggests that being overweight or obese may increase risk of contralateral breast cancer in breast cancer survivors. Early studies have linked excess body weight with an increased risk of the disease. Additionally, breast cancer survivors are at a greater risk of developing second cancers.

The study led by Majed B. and colleagues from Curie Institute in Paris, France shows that after a 10-year follow-up, women who were overweight or obese were 50 percent more likely than those with a normal body weight to acquire contralateral breast cancer.

Overweight is defined as having a body mass index of higher than 25 kg/m2 but lower than 30 kg/m. Obesity is defined as having a BMI of higher than 30 kg/m. In the current study, BMI for a survivor was measured at the time of diagnosis.

The study included 15,000 patients and incidence of contra-lateral breast cancer was found at 8.8 per 1000 person-years. The risk for the second cancer increased during the follow-up, the researchers found.

The researchers also found overweight breast cancer survivors had a poorer prognosis following contralaterial breast cancer events.

The study was published in the Sep 26, 2010 issue of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.

Another, study also published in the same journal on Aug 21 2010, found that overweight and weight gain increased postmenopausal breast cancer risk in BRCA1/2 mutation carriers.

For the study, Manders P. and colleagues from Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam, The Netherlands analyzed data collected from 719 BRCA1/2 carriers, of whom 218 were diagnosed with breast cancer within 10 years prior to the survey.

Compared to a current body weight of less than 72 kilograms, a current body weight of higher than 72 kilograms increased the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer by 100 percent, Maders P et al reported.

Those who were overweight, gained 5 kg or more body weight, and 20 percent or more body weight were 46 percent, 56 percent and 60 percent more likely to develop postmenopausal breast cancer, respectively compared to those having a healthy or stable weight. But the associations were deemed statistically insignificant.

In any case, being overweight or obese can be an independent risk factor for breast cancer and other malignancies as many studies suggest, even though the precursors leading to obesity, such as inadequate diet and physical inactivit, are more important risk factors for the disease.

In the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, readers need to know they can do more than wearing pink to fight or even prevent breast cancer.

The American Cancer Society says there is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, but women can do something to reduce their risk of breast cancer. Unfortunately, the majority of their suggestions or advice is regarding the use of diagnostic tools, drugs and surgeries.

Using diagnostic tools to detect breast cancer early or using chemopreventive drugs or surgeries may not be the only things women can do to reduce the risk; in poor countries, women do not have access to such diagnostic tools as mammogram screening and genetic testing, chemopreventive drugs like Tamoxifen, Raloxifene, aromatase inhibitors, and other drugs, and preventive surgeries like prophylactic mastectomy and oophorectomy – however, they are at much lower risk for the disease.

By David Liu and editing by Rachel Stockton