Marg Helgenberger’s Crusade Against Breast Cancer

By Linda Childers
Reviewed by John D. Hainsworth, MD, and Roy S. Weiner, M.D.

On the hit television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, award-winning actress Marg Helgenberger played the role of an investigator who tracks down elusive criminals. In real life, the 52-year-old actress uses her tenacity to pursue another foe: breast cancer, a disease her mother, Kay Snyder, was diagnosed with 30 years ago.

“My mom was a nurse, and when she found a lump in her breast, she knew something was wrong,” recalls Marg. “Unfortunately, it was overlooked because she had cystic breasts. After getting a second opinion, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have a bilateral mastectomy.”

At the time, Marg was a junior at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. She was so worried about her mom that she took a leave of absence to care for her. Marg didn’t go back to college until a year later, when her mother was in remission. “I was devastated when my mom was diagnosed,” she says. “She underwent chemotherapy for six to eight months, and it just drained her, physically and emotionally. But she always had a strong will and faith. I never doubted she would survive.”

Today Kay is cancer-free, but Marg’s memories of her mother’s battle with the disease remain in the forefront of her mind. “My mom’s diagnosis made me realize you can’t take your health for granted,” says Marg, who left CSI to pursue live theater. Every year, she spreads awareness of the disease and raises money for research by walking with her mom in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and traveling to Nebraska to host events that benefit the Nebraska Medical Center, her hometown cancer center. “The most important things I’ve learned about breast cancer come from the survivors,” she says. “These women have an enormous amount of strength. They inspire and support you so you don’t feel like you’re in it alone.”   

Marg herself is at increased risk of developing the disease, so she stays on top of her health by doing the following:

Getting screened.
“I’m vigilant about doing breast self-exams in the shower at least once a month and getting annual mammograms,” says Marg, who got her first mammogram before age 40.
Why it could save your life: A recent study published in the journal Radiology found that mammograms are even more effective than experts believed. In the 29-year study of mammograms—the longest one ever done—there were 30% fewer breast cancer deaths among the women who were screened compared to those who were not. The more years that passed, the more lives were saved.

Making fitness fun.
“One of my favorite ways to unwind is to take a hike or go for a long walk with my dog, Henry,” she says. “I also try to fit in yoga and weight training several times a week.”
Why it could save your life: Exercise has been shown to slash your risk of breast cancer. In fact, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that postmenopausal women who participate in three hours or more per week of moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, have a 10% to 20% reduced risk of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends exercising for 45 minutes to an hour five or more days per week.

Monitoring her weight.
Marg learned the importance of good nutrition from an early age, because her mom was a nurse. She’s always enjoyed a healthy diet, and that makes it easier for her to maintain her weight today. “I love yogurt, fresh berries, salads, tuna and turkey,” she says. “I often start my day with a protein-packed smoothie made with yogurt and some fresh fruit.”
Why it could save your life: Being overweight or obese increases your risk of breast cancer—especially after menopause, according to the ACS. Prior to menopause, your ovaries produce most of your estrogen, but after menopause, most estrogen comes from fat tissue. Having more fat tissue can raise estrogen levels, which are thought to play a role in breast cancer.

Limiting alcohol.
Marg has the occasional drink. “I enjoy a beer or a glass of wine after work and on special occasions,” Marg says.
Why it could save your life: Alcohol is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, but women who have one drink per day have only a very small increase in risk compared to women who don’t drink. Those who have two to five drinks daily have about 1½ times the risk, according to the ACS.

Weighing the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with your doctor.
Marg does not use it, although she’s not opposed to taking it.
Why it could save your life: Using HRT (a combination of estrogen and progesterone) after menopause has been shown to raise your breast cancer risk—and it may increase your chance of dying from the disease, according to the ACS. It may also reduce the effectiveness of mammograms, since estrogen increases breast density. The increased risk applies only to women who are taking HRT now—or have used it recently, since the risk of breast cancer returns to normal within five years of stopping treatment.

That being said, estrogen alone doesn’t appear to increase your risk of breast cancer. If you’re struggling with menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats, talk with your doctor about whether you can use hormones at the lowest possible dose and for a short time, recommends the ACS. (If estrogen is used for more than 10 years, it may boost your risk of both ovarian and breast cancers.)  

Is breast cancer genetic?
Your mom, sister or aunt hasn’t had breast cancer, so you probably won’t get it, right? Wrong. More than 85% of women who develop the disease don’t have a family history of it, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Being a woman is the main risk factor, and as you get older, your chance of developing it increases. About one in eight breast cancers are found in women younger than 45, whereas two out of three are found in women 55 or older.

If you do have a family member who’s had the illness, you’ll need to monitor your health closely. Having a first-degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) with breast cancer doubles your risk; having two first-degree relatives triples your risk, according to the ACS. Having a father or brother with the disease increases your risk as well. About 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases stem from defects in genes inherited from a parent. The most common causes are mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which prevent breast cells from growing abnormally. If you have a family history of the disease, ask your doctor whether you should have a blood test that can detect a mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

Published March 2014

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