The Prevent Defense: 6 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer
Just 10 percent of breast cancers are due to genetic factors. The rest? “They’re related, directly or indirectly, to lifestyle,” says Dr. Marisa Weiss, president and founder of BreastCancer.org, who is a breast cancer survivor herself. While that may sound like cause for concern, Dr. Weiss says it’s actually empowering: “Whether you’ve never been diagnosed or you’ve had the disease in the past, there’s plenty you can do to reduce your risk.” Here are six positive steps to take today:
1. Get moving.
Numerous studies have shown that women who exercise reduce their likelihood of being diagnosed, or re-diagnosed, with breast cancer. Among the evidence, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill researchers found that two hours of daily physical activity (from working out as well as activities like household chores), reduced women’s odds of breast cancer by a notable 30 percent. New research from the University of Minnesota suggests that exercise helps by allowing the body to break down estrogen, the hormone that plays a major role in the disease’s development. Tight on time? “Every little bit makes a difference,” says Dr. Kathy J. Helzlsouer, director of prevention and research at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “I tell all of my patients to look for free moments; for example, I always take the stairs instead of the elevator. It adds up throughout the day.”
2. Go easy on alcohol.
Alcohol consumption increases risk of breast cancer – and the more women drink, the higher their odds, show studies. That’s not to say you should never have a cocktail again, “but keeping your intake to no more than three to five drinks a week is a good idea, both for breast cancer and overall health,” says Dr. Weiss. (One drink is the equivalent of one and a half ounces of liquor, five ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer).
3. Mind the scale.
Fat tissue increases the production of estrogen. Researchers believe that may be why women who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk for breast cancer. Fortunately, losing just five percent of body weight – if you weigh 170, that’s eight and a half pounds – lowers postmenopausal women’s blood levels of estrogen and reduces breast cancer risk by 22 percent, according a study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
“The closer you can get to a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or lower, the better,” Dr. Helzlsouer says. Go to CDC.gov for a free BMI calculator.
4. Kick butts.
Smoking gets a bad rap because of lung cancer, but it’s a major breast cancer risk, too, stresses Dr. Maurie Markman, national director of medical oncology at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “Even secondhand smoke is dangerous,” Dr. Markman says. “Smoke is a carcinogen that damages tissue and triggers cell abnormality.” If you need to kick the habit, don’t go cold turkey; research shows that using smoking cessation aids – such as counseling, nicotine patches, gum and/or medication – more than triples your chances of success. Visit SmokeFree.gov for free resources.
5. Consider the benefits of motherhood and nursing.
Women who have at least one child in their 20s are less likely to develop breast cancer than those who give birth later; those who breastfeed for two years of their lives, total, are also less likely to have breast cancer for similar reasons. Researchers aren’t sure why, but it may be related to a reduction in overall estrogen exposure.
6. Stay in close contact with your doctor.
When it comes to prevention, “One size does not fit all,” says Dr. Nancy Klauber-DeMore, a surgical oncologist and professor of surgery at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “Women should talk to their physicians about their health history, family history and lifestyle to figure out their individual risk, then tailor their approach accordingly.” If you have a first-degree relative who’s had breast cancer, or a genetic risk factor such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, your doctor may recommend extra steps, such as bi-annual screenings (including physical exams, mammograms and/or MRIs), or preventive medication like Tamoxifen. If you’ve had breast cancer in the past, “perhaps the most important thing you can do is to stay the course with your treatment,” Dr. Helzlsouer says. “No one’s better equipped to help you with that than your physician.”