Breast cancer is a complicated disease with a long list of possible causes and no guaranteed method of prevention, although scientists are searching for a vaccine to perhaps change this reality in the near future. And while the greatest risks for breast cancer are beyond our control (being female, advancing age, family history), there are several steps that every woman can take that have shown to reduce one's risk:
Research suggests that women who breast-feed for more than 18 months have a reduced risk of breast cancer. While women cannot always time their children to reduce their cancer risk (that means having a first child before the age of 30), they can choose to breast-feed.
Cut Back on Alcohol
The occasional wine or beer is no problem, but having one or two alcoholic beverages every day increases your breast cancer risk. In fact, risk increases steadily as alcohol consumption goes up. Research presented at the American Association for Cancer Research in 2008 showed that women who consume three or more drinks a day increase their risk of breast cancer by 51 percent.
Drop the Weight
Gaining a mere 20 pounds since age 18 increases a woman's risk of breast cancer, according to research published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention. Gaining 20 pounds increased the risk of breast cancer by 40 percent and gaining 70 pounds doubled that risk. The link between weight and breast cancer risk is explained in part because body fat increases circulating estrogen, one of the hormones that plays a leading role in breast cancer.
Any physical activity is good for your health, but women who get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate- to high-intensity activity each day have a significantly reduced risk of breast cancer. Moderate exercise includes such activity as walking briskly, swimming laps or washing and waxing a car. More than 60 studies have demonstrated a link between being physically active and being less likely to receive a breast cancer diagnosis.
Make an Educated Decision About Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
HRT has been recommended for women after menopause who want to reduce symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia and vaginal dryness. However, the use of HRT has also been linked to a significantly increased risk of breast cancer. Women who are trying to cope with the symptoms of menopause should talk with their doctor about options for improving their quality of life.
Schedule Regular Screenings
Although screening will not prevent breast cancer, it can help catch cancer early, when it can be more effectively treated. Follow the national recommendations for breast cancer screenings. This means:
- Women over 20 should perform a monthly breast self-exam (if you don't know how, ask your doctor or gynecologist) and report any changes to their doctor.
- Women between 20 and 30 years old should have a clinical breast exam (performed by a physician) at least every three years.
- Women over 39 should have a clinical breast exam every year.
- Women over 39 should have a mammogram every year.
Women with a history of cancer in their family or with other risk factors (such as having had radiation of the chest as a child or young adult) should talk with their doctor about whether they should be getting mammograms or MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) earlier or more frequently.
SOURCES: "Alcohol Increases Breast Cancer Risk," April 14, 2008, United Press International; "Breast Cancer and Breastfeeding," July 20, 2002, The Lancet; "HRT After Menopause Reduces Symptoms," Sept. 10, 2008, HealthDay News; National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov); American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org)
Written by Madeline Roberts Vann, MPH
Reviewed by Susan L. Luedke, MD
St. Louis Cancer & Breast Institute
St. Louis University Medical Center
Last updated September 2008