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This Month, Think Pink... and Remember Red

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Throughout October, our nation is turning pink. It is a tribute to the fight against breast cancer and a perfect way to raise awareness of this devastating disease.

The underlying theme to this movement is easy to embrace. It's moms and sisters, aunts and nieces, friends and neighbors -- the women in our lives who mean so much to us. They're the backbone of our families and communities, and they're the ones most at risk for breast cancer. Keeping them healthy makes us all feel better.

While breast cancer is understandably considered a women's disease, here is something that may surprise you: Heart disease is, too. In fact, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, causing one of every three deaths each year; that's an average of nearly one woman per minute.

The surprising reality is that more women than men have died from heart disease each year since 1984. The fact it is so surprising is part of the problem. Because women often think of heart disease as something that happens to men, they miss warning signs sent by their own hearts. Making it even trickier is that those signals can be different for women than men. A study released just a few weeks ago shows that women with a particular type of heart problem were less likely than men to have the classic heart attack symptom of chest pain.

Whether the topic is breast cancer, heart disease or any major illness, women need to be in tune with their bodies. Awareness and education are vital because they lead to prevention and early detection, two of the best tools in health improvement.

To delve deeper into this important topic, I'm proud to turn this spot over to the woman at the helm of the organization that's leading the charge to wipe out breast cancer: Judith Salerno, M.D., M.S. and the chief executive officer of Susan G. Komen.


2013-10-03-JudyHeadshot.jpgAs the leader of the nation's largest breast cancer organization, I'm often asked how we can prevent this disease that will strike 232,000 U.S. women this year alone. These conversations usually start with a sincere question about whether a certain berry, vitamin or other substance is the "silver bullet" that will keep breast cancer at bay.

The bad news is that no, at the moment, there is no super pill that will prevent breast cancer. But studies have shown that controlling your weight, being physically active, and limiting your alcohol intake can reduce your risk.

Sound familiar? These are the same lifestyle changes that can reduce one's risk of other chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. (Unlike the demonstrated link between tobacco use and heart disease, the link between smoking and breast cancer isn't yet clear, but I obviously don't recommend that anyone smoke.)

You may note that we talk about risk reduction, not prevention. As yet, there is no way to truly "prevent" breast or other cancers. We still don't understand why cancer cells switch on and metastasize in some people, yet remain dormant in others. Family history plays a role in only 5-10 percent of breast cancer cases, but what causes the rest?

It's a fundamental question for which we don't yet have answers. However, that hasn't stopped us from trying.

I joined Susan G. Komen last month after many years in medicine and public health, research and health policy at the National Institutes of Health, the Veterans Health Administration and most recently at the Institute of Medicine (IOM). As an authoritative advisor to the nation on health matters, IOM is often asked to bring together experts to consider pressing issues in health and health care. One of the IOM's recent studies was a $1.5 million project in 2011, funded by Susan G. Komen, to examine the state of the evidence around environmental issues in breast cancer. One of the main conclusions was that there was provocative but as yet inconclusive evidence about the role of a number of exposures contributing to the development of breast cancer.

Komen was seeking an independent assessment of what the scientific community had learned, and where environmental research needed to go. That assessment led Komen to award $4.5 million in environmental challenge grants this summer, bringing Komen's total investment in research into the causes and prevention of breast cancer to more than $100 million. Our overall investment in all forms of breast cancer research is now $790 million, second only to the U.S. government and the largest of any nonprofit funder.

Our environmental challenge grants are looking into the role of chemicals, air pollution, medical radiation exposures, diet and lifestyle issues in breast cancer development. We're also supporting research into the potentially preventive properties of flaxseed, fish oil, and Vitamins A and D, as well as drugs that may prevent breast cancer in certain high-risk individuals.

Because of these investments, we've learned that drugs used to control diabetes may also help prevent breast cancer from developing, and that anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen may help reduce the incidence and aggressiveness of breast cancers that can develop after pregnancy. We've also learned that getting an optimal amount of Vitamin A and D in the diet, especially during puberty, may prevent breast cancer later in life.

Those results are all encouraging, getting us closer to the day when we can announce that we've found scientifically proven ways to prevent breast cancer.

Until that day, it makes sense to focus on those things that we as individuals can do to stay healthy: maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular physical activity, using alcohol in moderation, and staying away from tobacco.

And because this is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let me add a few more things that you can do to take care of yourselves. Women -- and men -- should be vigilant about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. Know the look and feel of your breasts and see a medical professional when there are changes. Follow recommended screening guidelines, and talk to your doctor about your personal risk (family history, for example).

We have important information about breast cancer risk factors on our website, Stop by and see us.

Dr. Judith Salerno is CEO of Susan G. Komen.