Yesterday, I participated in the annual Bosom Buddies swim, organised by my friends and fellow open water swimmers Kerry Kopke and Felicity Pentland Smith. An informal swim for breast cancer awareness and to raise funds for the non-profit The Pink Drive.
But this description does little to convey the gravitas and experience of the swim. For each of us, in some way, we plunge outside our comfort zone. It is a day that demands courage. There are those of us who spend our ever free moment swimming in the sea, we welcome the cold, we go so far as to acknowledge that for us the cold is something of a ‘drug of choice’. But at this swim, at least half of the women are not swimmers, are not comfortable diving through breaking waves to get into the sea, and are definitely not comfortable in what was an icy 10 degrees (50 Fahrenheit). It is also said of us regular swimmers that we spend 25% of our time 75% naked, making it a lot easier to shed a few more percent and go top-less, but there are many for whom this exposure is uncomfortable and difficult. And lastly, we come together at this swim to acknowledge the many friends and family in our lives who have been affected by breast cancer or who are battling it now.
And that is where my two worlds come together. You cannot work in genetics and nutrition, and not be constantly dealing with the proliferance and complexity of breast cancer. Breast cancer, no matter at what age and how aggressive, is an interplay between our genes and the choices we make in our diet, our lifestyle and the hormones we expose ourselves too. Angelina Jolie successfully raised awareness of the BRCA gene when she was found to have this gene variant and decided to have a prophylactic double mastectomy. The BRCA gene variant is what we regard as a high-penetrance gene variant, what we mean by this is that if you have this form of the gene, your chance of being diagnosed with breast (or ovarian) cancer are significantly higher than in the general population. It used to be believed that when this gene variant was identified, the impact of the variant was so powerful that the diet and lifestyle choices you made would not change your risk.
Late last year I attended the PLMI (plminstitute.org) conference in Tuscon, Arizona and heard an outstanding talk proposing that penetrance is fluid and can be changed! It may not sound like it, but this is really a significant shift in our thinking. What it means is that we have always assumed that if you have a BRCA 1 or 2
It’s Not Just Your Genes! Let’s make the best choices as early in our lives as we can, let’s work on shifting that penetrance down! The daily choices we make can do just that.