Women’s Health

Stephanie Watson

Fear of breast cancer recurrence prompting women to choose prophylactic mastectomy

Living through the physical and emotional toll of breast cancer is so traumatic that some women can’t bear the thought of doing it again. That’s why a growing number of women who have already been diagnosed with cancer in one breast are taking the drastic measure of having both breasts removed (a procedure called prophylactic mastectomy). Yet a University of Michigan study presented last week at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Quality Care Symposium showed that nearly three-quarters of women who had this procedure were actually at very low risk of developing cancer in the healthy breast. In other words, many women are unnecessarily exposing themselves to the potential risks of a double mastectomy—including pain, infection, and scarring. The new study suggests that more and better information about breast cancer recurrence—and the risks and benefits of prophylactic mastectomy—are needed as women consider this procedure.

Stephanie Watson

Researchers explore blood test to detect early breast cancer

Researchers at Kansas State University have developed a blood test that rapidly detects breast cancer (as well as non-small cell lung cancer) in very early stages, long before symptoms appear or the cancer can be seen by other methods. The experimental test identifies enzyme patterns that differ from one type of cancer to another. According to the researchers, the test can detect very early breast cancers (stages 0 and 1), as well as early lung cancers (stages 1 and 2), within an hour, with 95% accuracy. However, they tested only 32 participants with various stages of breast or lung cancer, as well as 12 people without cancer. Whether finding cancer that early makes a difference for treatment and survival remains to be seen.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Study backs mammograms for women 50 to 69

For years researchers have been trying to weigh the benefits of finding early breast cancers against the risks related to false positives (the spots that turn out to be harmless). This work has sparked some bitter public debates and confusion for women over flip-flopping recommendations. The latest salvo comes from a review of the results of mammograms among more than 12 million women in 18 European countries. The results support the idea that routine mammograms can prevent deaths from breast cancer without causing undue harm. The findings support the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s recommendation that women between the ages of 50 and 74 have a mammogram every other year. Women at higher risk of developing breast cancer may need mammograms earlier than age 50, or more often than every other year.

Harvey B. Simon, M.D.

Biking and sex—avoid the vicious cycle

Bicycling is a terrific way to get from one place to another. It’s also an excellent form of exercise. Some men and women avoid bicycling, though, because they worry that it may damage their reproductive organs and harm their sexual function. This mainly happens to people who cycle a lot. And it isn’t inevitable. One problem is the design of many bicycle seats, which put pressure on the perineum, a region of the body that runs from the anus to the sex organs. It contains the nerves and arteries that supply the penis in men and the clitoris and labia in women. You don’t have to give up biking to preserve your sexual function. Take a few simple precautions, like picking a wider seat, and shifting your position and taking breaks during long rides. These precautions will ensure that your passion for exercise doesn’t interfere with your passion in the bedroom.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack a lesson for women

You’ve probably heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” After reading about Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack, I’d like to coin a new one: “It takes a celebrity to sound the alarm about important health issues.” The 50-year-old actress, comedienne, and talk show host suffered a surprise (aren’t they all) heart attack last week. Word got out when she wrote about it on her blog. O’Donnell brushed off some chest pain and arm pain as muscle aches related to some heavy lifting, ditto later feelings of nausea and clammy skin. When she went to the hospital the next day, a key artery in her heart was 99% blocked. At age 50, O’Donnell may have thought she was too young for those problems to signal a heart attack. She also wasn’t familiar with a heart attack’s sometimes sneaky signs and symptoms. O’Donnell urges “know the symptoms ladies/listen to the voice inside/the one we all so easily ignore/CALL 911/save urself.”

Stephanie Watson

Staying fit linked to lower breast cancer risk

Daily exercise appears to reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, according to a study published online in the journal Cancer. The type or intensity of the exercise didn’t seem to matter, as long as it was done often. How much exercise is needed to lower breast cancer risk? In this study of 3,000 women, 10 to 19 hours a week (about two hours a day) had the greatest benefit. Age didn’t seem to matter—physical activity reduced breast cancer risk in younger women during their reproductive years and older women after menopause. What did make a difference in the effect of exercise was weight gain—especially after menopause. Gaining a significant amount of weight essentially wiped out the benefits of exercise on breast cancer risk in older women.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Studies question ban on alcohol during pregnancy

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has been taboo for some time, largely because drinking too much can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Because no one has been able to identify a clear threshold for “safe” drinking during pregnancy, doctors tell women to steer away from alcohol entirely. A series of five studies from Denmark published in BJOG An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that “low” (1-4 drinks per week) to “moderate” (5-8 drinks per week) alcohol consumption in early pregnancy did not harm the neuropsychological development of children evaluated at age five. Drinking more appears to be a different story. In one of the studies, five-year-olds whose mothers consumed higher levels of alcohol (9 or more drinks per week) during pregnancy were significantly more likely to have lower attention spans. The authors of the study do not argue that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is wise or to be encouraged. In fact, most doctors will continue to advise pregnant women not to drink alcohol. is there a middle ground? Perhaps. Deciding to have a sip (or glass) of champagne at a special occasion during pregnancy may not be an unreasonable or unsafe choice–one that each woman has to make for herself, ideally after talking with her obstetrician or midwife about this issue.

Carolyn Schatz

Anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders in midlife and beyond

Eating disorders don’t afflict only adolescents and young women, but plague older women, too, and may be shrouded in even greater shame and secrecy. Many women don’t seek help, especially if they fear being forced to gain weight or stigmatized as having a “teenager’s disease.” As reported in the February 2012 Harvard Women’s Health Watch, clinicians are reporting an upswing in requests from older women for help with eating disorders. For some of these women, the problem is new; others have struggled with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or another eating disorder for decades. Eating problems at midlife and beyond stem from a variety of causes, ranging from grief and divorce to illness, shifting priorities, and heightened awareness of an aging body.

Kay Cahill Allison

Managing fluids is one step toward better bladder control

As many as 32 million American women and men have some degree of incontinence—the unintended loss of urine or feces that is significant enough to make it difficult to do ordinary activities without frequent trips to the restroom. The most common causes of incontinence are childbirth and aging in women; prostate disorders and their treatment in men. Treatments include exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor, fluid management, medications, and surgery. For people with urinary incontinence, fluid management is an easy place to start, explains Better Bladder and Bowel Control, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School. This involves drinking only when you are thirsty, limiting your fluid intake from all sources to six to eight 8-ounce cups of fluid per day from all sources, and minimizing caffeinated and carbonated drinks, as well as alcohol.

Carolyn Schatz

Study supports alcohol, breast cancer link

A 28-year study of 106,000 women found that moderate alcohol slightly increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Women who had the equivalent of three to six drinks a week had a modest increase in their risk of breast cancer (15%) compared to women who never drank alcohol. That would translate into an extra 3 cases of breast cancer per 1,000 women per year. The risks were the same for wine, beer, and spirits. Because moderate drinking appears to prevent some types of heart disease—which affects more women than breast cancer does—it’s important for women to think about alcohol in light of their own personal health situation.