Ten Ways to Prevent Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Are you a breast cancer survivor?

    If so, please read our post on minimizing your recurrence risk.

    But if you’re a healthy woman trying to ensure you’ll never have to deal with breast cancer, read on.

    First of all, please understand that researchers don’t understand what causes breast cancer, and so can’t tell us how to prevent it. It’s still a random disease; up to 85% of women who get breast cancer have no known risk factors.

    But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to minimize your risk. With 2010 right around the corner, how about trying out a few of the New Year’s resolutions below? They certainly won’t hurt; and they might just help prevent you from being the “1” in that famous “1 in 8” statistic we hear so often.

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    1) Food. It’s synonymous to pleasure for most of us, so it’s hard to stop eating the things we love. And you don’t have to; moderation is the key to any diet. Here are a few simple dietary parameters that that might help you make healthier choices:

    •Maximize “good” fats, minimize “bad” fats: Reduce your intake of saturated fats (meat, full-fat dairy). Increase your intake of omega-3 fats (olive and canola oils; nuts and seeds; avocadoes; oily fish, including salmon, tuna, and mackerel).

    •Maximize “good” carbs; minimize “bad” carbs: Reduce your intake of “empty” carbs, like sugar, white potatoes, white rice, and “white” (not whole-grain) pasta. Increase your intake of “good” carbs, like whole grain cereals and breads, and high-fiber beans and legumes. Think brown rice in place of white; sweet potato fries instead of regular; Triscuits rather than Ritz; Total instead of Rice Krispies. Read side labels: high carbs, low fiber is NOT a good combination – minimize your consumption of these foods.
    2) Reconsider those oral contraceptives, if possible. Taking “the pill” increases your risk of breast cancer – while you’re taking it. Once you stop, your risk decreases over time, and in 10 years the risk disappears.

    3) Think about your child-bearing choices. While cancer prevention certainly isn’t a reason to get pregnant, pregnancy does reduce your risk of breast cancer. Here are some interesting statistics from the National Cancer Institute:

    •A woman who has her first child after the age of 35 has approximately twice the risk of developing breast cancer as a woman who has a child before age 20.

    •A woman who has her first child around age 30 has approximately the same lifetime risk of developing breast cancer as a woman who has never given birth.

    •Having more than one child decreases a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer. In particular, having more than one child at a younger age decreases a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer during her lifetime.

    In addition, breast-feeding lowers your risk of breast cancer.

    What’s behind all this? Estrogen. The longer your exposure to estrogen (early menstruation, late menopause, and no “pregnancy breaks”), the more at risk you are. While you can’t control menstruation or menopause, you do have some control over pregnancy and breast-feeding. Keep it in mind.

  • 4) Cut back on alcohol. Regular drinking increases your risk of breast cancer anywhere from 6% to 37%, depending how much and how often you drink. Even a half-glass of wine per day increases your risk, especially post-menopause. If you’re not a teetotaler, consider drinking less often. Try to limit yourself to several times a week, and enjoy only one serving when you do drink: a 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine, or a shot of hard liquor.

    5) Back to food. Dare I say it…? Enjoy soy! Studies have shown a positive association between soy consumption and a reduction in breast cancer risk. And if you haven’t tried tofu or soy milk lately, don’t turn your nose up – it’s a whole new world out there.

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    Think smoothies made with soy milk and/or silken tofu, both of which “disappear” in the fruit. Look for soy yogurt and soy coffee creamer (try the hazelnut) in the dairy case.

    Think baked or stir-fried firm tofu, which takes on whatever flavors you apply (curry powder, teriyaki sauce, garlic oil…). Enjoy edamame or frozen soybeans, which are exactly like baby lima beans in taste and texture. Munch salted soy nuts instead of peanuts. Trust me, there are all kinds of yummy ways to add soy to your diet.

    But beware the soy supplements; they can actually increase your risk. If you’re going the soy route, avoid the “deconstructed” soy in supplements.

    6) Try to minimize your exposure to artificial light. Studies have shown increased breast cancer risk in women working the night shift, and in industrialized countries in general.

    Researchers have proven that melatonin, a chemical produced during the time your body thinks it should be asleep, helps reduce your breast cancer risk. Artificial light suppresses your brain’s melatonin production. If you have a choice, and can afford it, choose NOT to work the night shift.

    7) Avoid hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Sure, those hot flashes and mood swings are miserable. But so is cancer. Studies have shown that women taking an estrogen/progestin combination HRT drug (e.g., Prempro) for at least 5 years double their risk of breast cancer.

    If hot flashes and other symptoms are seriously affecting your quality of life, then doctors recommend you use the lowest dose of HRT, for the shortest amount of time, to provide relief. 

    8) Control your weight. Women who gain weight at midlife increase their risk of breast cancer. Women whose body mass index (BMI) is over 30 increase their risk even more. Here’s what the National Cancer Institute has to say, reporting the results of a 2005 study:

    “Women who gained 55 lbs. or more after age 18 had almost 1½ times the risk of cancer compared with those who maintained their weight. A gain of 22 lbs. after menopause was associated with an increased risk of 18 percent. Losing 22 lbs. after menopause decreased the risk by 57 percent.”

    If you’ve got it – try to lose it. Better yet, if you’re still young, try not to gain it in the first place.
    9) If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, consider genetic testing to assess your own risk. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) defines “strong family history” as any of the following:

  • •Two first-degree relatives (mother, sisters, daughters) with breast cancer, one of whom was diagnosed when they were younger than 50;

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    •Three or more first- or second-degree relatives (includes grandmothers and aunts) diagnosed with breast cancer;
    •Both breast and ovarian cancer among first- and second-degree relatives;
    •A first-degree relative diagnosed with cancer in both breasts;
    •Two or more first- or second-degree relatives diagnosed with ovarian cancer;
    •A male relative with breast cancer.

    In addition, the USPSTF recommends that women of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent should be tested if they meet the following criteria:

    •A first-degree relative with breast or ovarian cancer; or
    •Two second-degree relatives on the same side of the family with breast or ovarian cancer.
    Knowing your specific breast cancer risk can help you make decisions around prophylactic mastectomy; removal of your ovaries; or chemoprevention, the use of drugs like tamoxifen to reduce your risk of cancer.

    10) At last! Here’s everyone’s favorite New Year’s resolution: EXERCISE. Studies have shown that exercising 4 or more hours per week reduces the risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women. Counter-intuitively, the risk reduction is even greater in women of normal or low weight, so if you’re exercising – keep up the good work! It’s not only your “body image” that’s benefiting; it’s your body itself.

    Are you a healthy woman interested in furthering cancer research by participating in a clinical trial around breast cancer prevention? Check out the National Cancer Institute’s prevention of breast cancer clinical trials.

Published On: December 21, 2009