Four Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer
Lauren Thompson, MD - Breast Surgeon
While there is no foolproof way to prevent breast cancer, healthy living can help increase the odds. Four ways to improve your chance of never developing breast cancer are:
If You Drink Alcohol, Drinking in Moderation
Alcohol may cause estrogen levels to rise, which increases the risk of certain breast cancers. You can reduce your risk by avoiding alcohol or drinking in moderation, which means drinking no more than one drink per day for women.
Eating a Healthful Diet
Eating a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will maintain your overall health and strengthen your immune system. A strong immune system is one of the best tools against breast cancer. On the other hand, a diet high in processed and red meat is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Look for healthy alternatives like lean meat (like chicken) and/or fish or vegetarian options. Good nutrition can also help to maintain a healthy weight. Excess body weight, especially after menopause, increases breast cancer risk. Fat cells secrete the hormone estrogen. The more fat on the body, the higher the estrogen level. Estrogen is associated with breast cancer development.
In combination with a nutritious diet, regular exercise is good for overall health, wellness and maintaining a healthy weight. Moderate physical activity has been shown to decrease breast cancer risk of both pre- and postmenopausal women. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise, including brisk walking, on most days of the week. If you currently do not exercise, talk to your doctor about how to get started on a safe program.
Limiting Exposure to Estrogen When Possible
Over time, high levels of estrogen have been linked to the development of breast cancer. For older women, the greatest exposure to estrogen is through postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy. The hormones that increase your risk are estrogen and progestin, when taken together. In addition, some birth control pills increase exposure to estrogen. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of estrogen replacement and taking birth control pills before using them.
In addition to these, you may reduce your chance of getting breast cancer by:
- Breastfeeding your children.
- Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis.
Who is at Risk?
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Certain factors increase the risk for breast cancer in women, although it is possible to develop breast cancer with or without the risk factors listed below. It is also important to note that breast cancer can and does occur in women with no known risk factors. Generally, the more risk factors you have the greater your likelihood of developing breast cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that women who fall into these groups have a higher risk:
- Age over 60 years—risk of breast cancer increases with age and most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50.
- History of lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS).
- History of irregular breast biopsies.
- Personal history of previous breast cancer, a family history of breast cancer, or genetic mutations like BRCA1 or BRCA2. A woman’s risk for breast cancer is higher if she has a mother, sister, or daughter (first-degree relative), or multiple family members on either her mother’s or father’s side of the family, who had breast cancer. A first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises a woman’s risk.
- Early menstrual period. Women who start their periods before age 12 are exposed to hormones longer, raising the risk for breast cancer by a small amount.
- Having your first baby after you turn 30, or never having a full-term pregnancy can raise breast cancer risk.
- Starting menopause after age 55. Like starting one’s period early, being exposed to estrogen hormones for a longer time later in life also raises the risk of breast cancer.
- Having dense breasts. Dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, which can make it hard to see tumors on a mammogram. Women with dense breasts are more likely to get breast cancer.
- Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.
- Women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was given to some pregnant women in the United States between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage, have a higher risk. Women whose mothers took DES while pregnant with them also are at risk.
For those in very high-risk groups, your doctor may recommend:
- Genetic Testing: If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, talk to your doctor about whether you should be tested for gene mutations associated with breast cancer. Women who carry these particular genes are at higher risk for breast and other cancers.
- Estrogen-Blocking Drugs: There are two FDA-approved medications to prevent breast cancer in high-risk, postmenopausal women. Tamoxifen and raloxifene work by blocking estrogen from binding to estrogen-sensitive cells, which prevents the cells from growing and dividing. However, these medications also increase your chances of having blood clots, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
- Prophylactic Surgery: Surgery to remove both breasts (prophylactic mastectomy) may be an option for women who are at very high risk for breast cancer. If you have many risk factors for breast cancer, talk to your doctor to help decide if this is an option for you.
What Does Not Cause Breast Cancer
Just as important as understanding what factors increase the risk of developing breast cancer, is to understand what does not. Despite certain media coverage, the Susan G. Komen® organization reports that in observational and randomized controlled studies there is no conclusive, scientific basis for any of these substances or experiences as catalysts for breast cancer:
- Hair dye or relaxers
- Electromagnetic fields from utility wires, electric blankets, etc.
- Underwire bras
- Breast implants
- Breast trauma
- Cell phone use
- Deodorant or antiperspirant use
While it is not a guarantee, living a healthy lifestyle creates the greatest odds of evading breast cancer.
For more information regarding breast cancer or breast disease, contact Lauren Thompson, MD, of Atlantic Surgical Associates at (603) 431-5242.