Breast cancer is a frustrating disease. Unlike cardiovascular issues, many of which can be controlled through lifestyle changes; or lung cancer, which is clearly tied to tobacco use, your risk for breast cancer consists of a variety of factors over which you have absolutely no control.
Your chief risk factor is being a woman; number two is getting older. OK, not much you can do about either of those. Third and fourth are genetics, and family history. You know what they say, you can pick your friends, but" So forget amending your genes or severing your family connection.
The next three risk factors include having already had breast cancer; having dense breasts; and pre-cancerous conditions, such as an overgrowth of abnormal cells in your breast. No to-do’s here, so let’s move on to numbers 8-10: having a first-degree relative with breast cancer; having had high-dose radiation to the chest before age 30 (usually to treat non-Hodgkins lymphoma); and dense bones. Do you see anything there you can change? Me neither.
So there you have it, the American Cancer Society’s top-10 risk factors for breast cancer none of which you can do anything about.
So, what, it’s totally random? You get breast cancer, or you don’t? Well, yes" and no. There are in fact lesser risk factors for breast cancer that you can influence. Some things, you’ve already missed your chance to change, if you’re older. But some are still within your reach.
First, you can drink less. Women who have 2-5 alcoholic drinks a day are 1 1/2 times more likely to get breast cancer than women who drink infrequently, or not at all. One drink a day, your risk is increased, but minimally.
Next, you can exercise more. The American Cancer Society recommends 45 to 60 minutes of "intentional" physical activity (as opposed to, say the walking you do from car to house and kitchen to bedroom), at least 5 days a week. Studies show that even 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours of brisk walking per week helps.
Also and this is a new one you can sleep more. A Japanese study, released in September, showed that women who slept 6 or fewer hours per night were 62% more likely to develop breast cancer than those who slept an average of 7 hours a night. And women who slept 9 hours or more had 28% fewer breast cancers than those who averaged 7 hours a night.
It’s posited that melatonin, released when we’re sleeping, is a breast cancer deterrent. So I know it’s difficult, but try to hit the sack early. And make sure your room is dark and quiet; no TV, no streetlights. More melatonin is released in darkness than in semi-darkness.
Finally, we come to an array of risk factors that all center around estrogen. Some are controllable; some aren’t.
The more periods you have over your lifetime, the greater your breast cancer risk, due to greater exposure to estrogen. You can’t control how early you started your period, and how late you hit menopause; but you can control how many pregnancies you have, and how early you have your first child, and whether you breast-feed for 1 1/2 to 2 years (more, earlier pregnancies, with long-term breast-feeding = reduced estrogen = reduced breast cancer risk.) Not that I’d recommend planning your family around breast cancer risk; it’s just something to think about.
Then there are those estrogen-related areas we can definitely exercise control around: weight gain, and HRT (hormone replacement therapy) use. Estrogen is produced by fat cells in our bodies, as well as by the ovaries; this estrogen production is pretty inconsequential in pre-menopausal women, but after menopause, it takes on more significance.
Women who gain weight after menopause, especially those who gain it around the waist, rather than in the hips and thighs, are at increased risk for breast cancer. The more weight you gain, the greater your risk. I know, it’s virtually impossible NOT to gain weight after menopause, what with the slowdown of your metabolism; but try to keep it in check, by eating less and exercising more.
And as for HRT: longer-term HRT has been shown to increase breast cancer risk. If you simply can’t stand the hot flashes, mood swings, and other side effects of menopause, then decide with your doctor what the lowest-dose, shortest-term HRT use would be. After all, HRT is adding estrogen to your body; and increased estrogen, for 70% of breast cancers, is a significant risk factor.
So yes, we’re all at risk for breast cancer. And we can’t just stop smoking and lower our risk considerably, as those trying to head off lung cancer can. But we’re definitely doing ourselves a favor if we live a healthy lifestyle more sleep, less alcohol, lower weight, more exercise.
Don’t be discouraged; start slowly, but start today. Take a walk. Have one beer, instead of two; this’ll also help keep your weight in check. And moderate your use of HRT drugs.
Sometimes, little things DO make a difference.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.