Savvy womens Magazine

Women's Health Matters Q & A
Unusual Brown Spots, Exercise and Breast CA

By Joan Liebmann-Smith, Ph.D., and
Jacqueline Nardi Egan

When we were invited to write a women's health column by the editors of Savvy Women's Magazine, we were thrilled. We're both medical writers who have written extensively on women's health issues. We're constantly bombarded with health questions from family, friends, and friends of friends. They're usually from women, and are often about subjects they hesitate to mention to their doctors because they're too intimidated or too embarrassed. Or they may think that their questions are too trivial. We believe that all health-related concerns are important, and deserve attention. And we believe that our new Savvy Women's Magazine Women's Health Matters Column is the perfect place to address such questions. Since we're not medical doctors, the Q & As will focus on prevention and early detection, rather than treatment. All treatment-related questions should be directed to one's physician.

Coincidentally, just when we started writing this column, a friend and colleague asked the following two questions. We thought it's as good a place to start as any.

Q: I have this brown spot on my lower leg - which has been there for many years - and it's getting bigger.  The spot looks almost like a flower petal and has a very dark brown spot in the middle. Is this something I should worry about? 

A: If the brown spot on your leg is flat and painless, it's most likely an age or liver spot (because of the shape, not a connection to your liver). It's also referred to as a sun spot because the sun is the primary cause of these often unsightly spots. Medically known as senile or solar lentigines, these spots are exceedingly common in older people with fair skin, and are usually of only a cosmetic concern. However, because your spot may not be an age spot, and the dark spot in the middle may be of medical concern, you should get it checked out. Indeed, any skin spot or lesion that changes size, color, shape, or texture should be examined by a dermatologist to rule out skin cancer. Before you panic, however, keep in mind that most cases of skin cancer - including melanoma, the deadliest form - can usually be successfully treated when caught early.

Even if your darkening spot is benign, you should see it as a warning sign to wear sunscreen whenever you're out in the sun. Skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the US, is the only one that's almost totally preventable through sun protection. Yet one in three whites in the US will develop basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), or melanoma. In women under age 40, the rate of BCC has tripled and the rate of SCC quadrupled over the past three decades.

Q: A friend of mine who had breast cancer just told me that there is a 40% chance of breast cancer not recurring if you exercise. Is this true?

A: Your friend is correct. According to the renowned Nurses' Health Study, exercise has been found to reduce the risk not only of breast cancer returning but of dying from the disease, as well. Indeed, the researchers found that the women who exercised just an hour a week were less likely to die of their breast cancer than women who got less than an hour of physical activity. By exercise, researchers meant engaging in any physical activity – whether it's walking, biking, swimming, playing tennis, or even doing yoga or mowing the lawn – that's equivalent to walking at a pace of about 2-3 mph.

The women who benefited the most were those who exercised a modest 3-5 hours weekly. In fact, moderate exercise was just as effective as more intense exercise. So, you don't have to be a triathlete to reap the benefits. The study also found that exercise was more helpful to women who had more advanced cancer than those with early-stage disease. And women who were over weight benefited more from exercise than women of average weight.

The bottom line is that the evidence shows that women who engage in moderate physical activity 3-5 hours a week may be able to reduce the risk of their breast cancer recurring by 43% and improve their chance of survival by 50%!

Women's Health Matters' Columnists
Joan Liebmann-Smith, Ph.D., (on right) is a medical sociologist and award-winning medical writer. Her articles have appeared in American Health, Ms., Newsweek, Redbook, Self, and Vogue; and she has appeared on numerous television talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Today Show. Joan has written four other books, two with co-author Jacqueline: The Unofficial Guide to Overcoming Infertility and The Unofficial Guide to Getting Pregnant. She is a consultant at the Strang Cancer Prevention Center, on the board of the National Council on Women's Health, and lives in New York City with her husband, also a writer.

Jacqueline Nardi Egan is a medical journalist who specializes in developing and writing educational programs with and for physicians, allied health professionals, patients, and consumers. A former editor of Family Health magazine, she is currently Associate Editorial Director of Continuing Education Alliance. Jacqueline has been featured on several radio talk shows and appeared on The Early Show and Weekend Today in New York. She divides her time between Darien, Connecticut and Sag Harbor, New York.

Dr. Liebmann-Smith and Ms. Egan are co-authors of a new book, Body Signs: From Warning Signs to False Alarms...How to Be Your Own Diagnostic Detective, published by Bantam Books in January, 2008. Body Signs helps readers detect their own body signs and determine when a visit to the doctor may be needed.

If you have any questions or topics related to prevention or early detection that may be of interest to other women, please send them to us. Simply click here to contact us. Because we're not medical doctors, we won't be dealing with diagnostic methods or treatments. These should be directed to your physician. Unfortunately we can't acknowledge or respond to all questions. The senders of the questions that we do use in our column will not be identified in any way.