5 ways to cut breast cancer risk

Breast cancer may be the most common cancer among women. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t do something to help prevent it.

Researchers have found certain risk factors that increase a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer. We can’t change some of these factors, like age or race. But we can try to control others, like weight gain and alcohol use.

And, taking responsibility for the things you can control may curb your chances of developing this disease.

Below are five simple ways to cut your breast cancer risk and take charge of your breast health.

1. Maintain your ideal weight. Women who gain a lot of weight after age 21 have higher breast cancer risks than women who maintain a healthy weight throughout life.

This is especially true for women who gain weight after menopause. That’s because too much fat tissue after menopause raises a women’s estrogen levels. And, high amounts of estrogen increase the likelihood of breast cancer.

To keep your cancer risk low, avoid weight gain by eating a healthy diet and staying active. Want more incentive to exercise? Growing research shows that exercise actually helps reduce breast cancer risk directly.

2. Drink alcohol in moderation. Having a glass of wine now and again is not bad for your health. But, drinking several glasses a day can up your breast cancer risks.

Play it safe by sticking to the recommended serving size. The National Cancer Institute recommends that women have no more than one drink per day and men have no more than two drinks per day.

A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

3. Talk to your doctor about hormone therapy. Some women receive hormone therapy to cope with menopause symptoms. But, how safe is it?

Recent results from the Women’s Health Initiative showed that women who took combined hormone therapy (estrogen and progestin) had a bigger risk of breast cancer. Follow-up results suggested that it’s specifically the progestin in combined hormone therapy that increases a woman’s risk.

So, speak with your doctor before using hormone therapy. Make sure you understand all the benefits and harms before you start.

4. Follow recommended screening guidelines. Cancer screening exams, such as the mammogram, are medical tests done when you’re healthy, and you don’t have any signs of illness. They help find cancer at its earliest stage when the chances of successfully treating the disease are greatest.

Women should get a clinical breast exam every 1-3 years beginning at age 20 to check for breast cancer. And, beginning at age 40, women should have a yearly clinical breast exam and mammogram.

In between doctor visits, practice breast self-awareness. This means you should simply be familiar with how your breasts look and feel. And, if you notice any changes during normal daily activities, like showering and dressing, notify your doctor.

5. Get your breast cancer risk assessed.

Every woman has a unique set of breast cancer risks. Depending on your lifestyle as well as your personal and family health history, you may be more likely or less likely to develop the disease.

That’s why it’s important to discuss your personal risks with your doctor. If you at increased risk for breast cancer, your doctor can develop a prevention plan for you. This plan may include undergoing genetic testing, starting mammogram screening at an earlier age or taking medicine to reduce your breast cancer risks.

Making these healthy changes does not mean you won’t get breast cancer, but they may lower your chances. And, that could mean you get to enjoy a longer, healthier life.

Therese B. Bevers is medical editor of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Focused on Health.

Submit a guest post and be heard on social media’s leading physician voice.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Koniver/100001463176810 Craig Koniver

    I would add one more to this list: make sure you move your LYMPH! Breast tissue is an end-organ lymphatic system. Conventional medicine largely ignores this bit of physiology. Two great ways to move your lymph: strenuous exercise (lymphatics run next to muscles so when muscles contract, lymph can be moved) and taking herbal lymph movers such as Poke Root. Trampolining may be the ideal way to move lymph. 

  • Anonymous

    There is some sound advice here…
    I’m 53 and try to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day and I have a healthy diet, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.
    I love good wine, but have 3 wine-free days every week and only have more than 2 glasses of wine on special occasions like Christmas.
    I don’t have clinical breast exams or mammograms though…informed decisions.

    I think women need to be very careful with blanket recommendations – we rarely get unbiased and complete information on risks and benefits. Sadly, our screening programs are highly political and loaded with vested interests.
    I know American women are “sold” the well-woman exam, but they are not evidence backed exams, they’re of poor clinical value in symptom-free women and are more likely to harm you. They’re not recommended here or in the UK – I’ve never had routine clinical breast exams. (or routine pelvic exams)
    I did some further research when I declined mammograms – Are CBEs useful for a woman over 50?
    I couldn’t find anything supporting the need for CBEs, showing a benefit…but they lead to biopsies.

    Mammograms – women are rarely told the risks of testing, but false positives and over-diagnosis are serious issues with breast screening. (the latter is a major concern for me)
    I also doubt the so-called benefits of breast screening – recent research suggests the fall in the death rate from breast cancer is about better treatments, and NOT screening. Breast Screen (Aust) recently urged women to have confidence in mammograms on the back of a Swedish study that showed screened women have lower mortality over the long term. No mention was made of the later study that found this fall in the death rate from breast cancer was due to better treatments, and not screening. It’s this selective presentation of the facts that concerns me, but they’re concerned about reaching the govt-set target of screening 70% of women aged 50-69 – their focus is the program and the political goal, NOT our health.

    I want all the facts and thankfully, there are a few high profile doctors who’ve stepped forward and are warning women about risk and  respect our right to ALL of the facts and an opportunity to make an informed decision.
    Prof Michael Baum, UK breast cancer surgeon, has written many articles on this subject and recently gave a lecture at UCL, “Breast cancer screening: the inconvenient truths” – on the UCL website.
    The Nordic Cochrane Institute also produced, “The risks and benefits of mammograms” (at their website) It was produced after they criticized the incomplete and misleading nature of the brochures being given to women in the UK, Australia and other countries. I think every woman should read this excellent overview of ALL of the evidence before they agree to screening.
    I practice “breast awareness” as devised by the late Dr Joan Austoker – just taking note of the look and shape of my breasts in the mirror every morning after I shower…
    I’m not satisfied that anything else is helpful…they’re more likely to risk my health.

    I agree with your comments about HRT – I wouldn’t consider HRT unless my symptoms were very difficult/debilitating and even then I’d still be very cautious.  I’d certainly prefer to avoid it altogether.
    http://www.cochrane.dk/
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/02/breast-cancer-screening?INTCMP=SRCH
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lhl/lhlpub_autumn10/06_28102010
    http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d4411

  • Anonymous

    “… beginning at age 40, women should have a yearly clinical breast exam and mammogram….”

    Dr. B, you’ve forgotten to include revised recommendations here from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force that do NOT support routine screening mammography for women aged 40-49.  Authors stated: “Our recommendation was evidence-based.
    Existing literature does not support the use of routine screening in
    this age group, meaning that the test carries small net benefit and
    should not be used routinely.”

    When Senate investigators led by Senator Charles Grassley
    (R-Iowa) asked groups opposed to these guidelines to  reveal any financial backing they
    receive from the pharmaceutical, medical device and insurance industries, they discovered that the most vociferous critics of the new
    breast screening guidelines included top officers at organizations like
    the American College of Radiology and the American Cancer Society, which receive substantial funding from the makers of mammography
    machines, including Johnson & Johnson, Siemens and Hologic. More on this at ‘Clinical Practice Guidelines vs Routine Screening Mammography’ – http://ethicalnag.org/2011/04/13/clinical-practice-guidelines/

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/66NCFAXDWYB7JVNVNLNIUTCUVU Violetta V

    Follow the recommended screening guidelines

    The title of the post is “how to cut your risk of breast cancer”. Screening doesn’t cut one’s risk of breast cancer, in fact, because of the overdiagnosis there are more screened women diagnosed with breast cancer than unscreened women and the unscreened women never catch up.

    1. Why are your screening recommendations different from those of the USPSTF?

    2. Why do you simply give screening recommendations but completely forget about risks of screening such as false postiives that may lead to biopsies and most importantly overdiagnosis? Don’t you think women have the right to know about both risks and benefits of screening?