The Power of Youth: Beginning Breast Cancer Prevention in Childhood

Creative Commons photo: Flickr/CatDancing (cropped)

We’ve written a lot recently about the importance of breast cancer prevention starting early in life, both here on Cancer News in Context and in a guest post on the American Association for Cancer Research blog, Cancer Research Catalyst.  Though most breast cancer research focusses on women in midlife and older, more and more evidence supports the years between early adolescence and when a woman has her first child as key to laying down risk for breast cancer later in life.  Breast tissue in these years appears to be particularly vulnerable to certain risk factors that can have a durable influence on risk.

Diet and physical activity seem to be especially key in youth.  Eating foods rich in vegetable protein and low in animal products can help lower risk — as can being physically active and keeping weight in check.  For teens and young adult women, avoiding alcohol – or at a minimum avoiding heavy drinking – is also important.

Our overarching message is that to optimize breast health a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and healthy weight are key habits that should begin in – and be fostered throughout – childhood and into adolescence and beyond.  Prevention is something that can almost never start too early.

A pie chart we use to illustrate the power of breast cancer prevention starting in childhood shows that healthy behaviors starting as early as age two years old could help avoid 68 percent of breast cancers (see figure).  The idea of beginning breast cancer prevention at two can seem extreme and has struck a chord with the media (see image).  And in many ways that is understandable, since breast cancer is a disease that seems so far off – striking most women much later in life – and breasts don’t even fully develop until the teen and young adult years.

Yet, we know that healthy behaviors aren’t easily turned on and off like spigots.  Healthy behaviors are learned over time, and the sooner in life they are set, the more likely they are to be carried on throughout childhood and into adulthood, and the more likely they are to have a positive impact on long term health.  This is why the Dietary Guidelines for Americans apply to everyone age two years old and over.  That breast tissue seems particularly vulnerable in youth and young adulthood adds even more reason to begin good breast health habits as early as possible.

For parents, the key is simply to help their children make healthy choices that they can follow throughout life.  This will not only help them lower their risk of breast cancer as adults, but also heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, and even depression.

See the excerpt below from our upcoming book on breast cancer prevention for breast health tips for the parents of young girls.

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Young daughters (2 years – 10 years)

As challenging as the period between ages 2 years old and 10 years old can be as a parent, it does offer some sense of control and the ability to steer your children in positive directions.

Within reason, the food you put on the table is the food they will eat and likely come to enjoy – even if it can take some struggling, pouting, and tears along the way, from them, and you. Similarly, if you’re a family that plays at parks and goes for walks throughout the week, that’s something that will become ingrained in a child as well and something they’ll likely wind up doing throughout their lives and eventually with their own children.

With young daughters, there are three simple things to focus on: healthy activity, healthy food, and healthy weight. Pretty straightforward stuff, but in today’s busy world where both parents often work and have very little time to think about such things, they can be much easier said than done.

Luckily, creating a healthy environment for our children isn’t very complicated or time-consuming – with a little planning and a little effort.

Let little legs move

We can easily get caught up in all the detailed recommendations we read about physical activity. Moderate intensity. Vigorous intensity. Aerobic. Strength. X number of minutes a week. And, yes, those can be important, but when it comes to young kids, it’s really less about making our kids reach some time targets for activity than it is about simply giving kids the opportunity to be kids. Because being active is really their natural state.

  • Be physically active as a family, every day if possible. Go on walks, ride bikes, shoot hoops, dance – whatever gets everyone moving.
  • Encourage children to play outside (when it’s safe) and to take part in organized activities, including soccer, gymnastics and dancing. 
  • Walk or ride bikes with your kids to school in the morning. 
  • Find safe places for children to play when weather is really bad: indoor playgrounds, YMCA, shopping malls.

Freeze the screens

Children grow up as digital natives these days, but that doesn’t mean that all that screen time doesn’t have health repercussions. Too much screen time takes time away from physical activity and can promote unhealthy eating.

  • Limit TV, tablet, computer, and other screen time to under 2 hours a day. The less the better.
  • Keep TV, tablets, and smartphones out of children’s bedroom’s. 
  • Choose one day each week to go TV and tablet-free as a family. Board games and family book or cooking clubs are great screen-time alternatives.

Offer a lot of plant foods

When it comes to promoting breast health later in life, getting daughters to eat a lot of plant-based foods early in life is likely important. This means focusing on fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and eating less full-fat dairy and meat.

  • Make fruits and vegetables a part of every meal. Put fruit on cereal. Cut up vegetables as a snack. 
  • Dice vegetables into soups, sauces, even batters. It’s an easy – and tricky – way to add more veggies to meals. 
  • Keep fruit out where kids can see it: on the counter, on a desk, in a backpack. If they can see it, they’re more likely to eat it.
  • Offer whole-grain cereal, brown rice and whole-wheat bread over refined choices, like white rice and white bread. 
  • Keep sugary drinks, like sodas, fruit drinks, and energy drinks to a minimum.
  • Try a meat-free week. The family just might like it.
  • Make dishes made with olive or canola oil, which are high in healthy fats. 
  • Cut back on full-fat dairy, fast food, and store-bought snacks (like cookies), which are often high in unhealthy fats.

Don’t obsess but keep track of weight

Weight is clearly a loaded issue, especially for girls. And it’s important not to create or perpetuate in your daughters – or any girls for that matter – unhealthy body image. In today’s world of Photoshopped models and selfies, females of all ages have a hard enough time comparing themselves to unreal expectations of beauty and body size.

At the same time, however, it’s important for parents to be aware of their daughter’s weight and to know whether it may be too low, too high, or in the normal range. Surprisingly, studies show that many parents have trouble knowing if their child is an unhealthy weight or not. So, simply knowing can be a victory in itself.

A good place to start if you have questions about your child’s weight is the CDC’s BMI Calculator for Child and Teen. This tool uses a special calculation of weight, height, gender, and age to estimate whether a child is underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. Because children are still growing and developing, these labels are not always perfectly accurate, so it’s important to bring up any concerns about your child’s weight directly with a healthcare provider.

  • Keep track of your child’s weight and bring up any concerns with a health care provider.
  • Help your daughter focus on healthy food choices and healthy activities rather than on weight and body image.
  • Give your children the chance to be physically active every day.
  • Limit sweets and processed foods, which are often high in calories as well as carbohydrates that can stimulate hunger.
  • Limit TV, tablet, computer, and other screen time to under 2 hours a day. The less the better.
  • Help your children get enough sleep by setting a bed time and sticking to it every day. Keeping electronics out of the bedroom also helps with sleep.

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