Simple Ways to Reduce Your Breast Cancer Risk Right Nowby PJ Hamel Patient Expert
Some breast cancer risk is unavoidable; and some is due to past behaviors. But the chance you’ll be diagnosed with breast cancer isn’t entirely out of your control. See these lifestyle choices you can make right now to lower your risk of breast cancer.
Maintain a healthy weight
About 80 percent of breast cancers need estrogen to grow. Estrogen lives in fat cells. Thus, the more fat you carry, the more likely you are to be diagnosed with breast cancer. How do you determine your healthy weight? Broadly speaking, a 5’6” woman under 155 pounds is at a healthy weight. More specifically, calculate your body mass index (BMI); if it’s under 25, you’re OK. If not, speak to your physician; certain body types (e.g., heavily muscled) are considered healthy at a higher BMI.
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), women can lower breast cancer risk by exercising at least four hours a week. This translates to between 45 and 50 minutes a day, five days a week (or 35 minutes a day every day). And what qualifies as exercise? Any physical activity that goes beyond simply walking around. Push a vacuum; take a brisk walk; pull weeds in the garden. You don’t need to join a gym; just get moving!
Limit your alcohol intake
According to multiple studies cited by the NCI, enjoying one alcoholic drink every day — a 12-ounce beer, shot of hard liquor, or 5-ounce glass of wine — raises your overall breast cancer risk by just under 10 percent. The more you drink, the more that risk increases. If you enjoy your nightly glass of wine, though, put this in perspective: a normal woman’s lifetime breast cancer risk is about 12 percent; a 10 percent increase raises that to just over 13 percent.
Avoid or limit hormone replacement therapy
Experiencing menopause? Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help with symptoms; but any HRT combining estrogen and progestin also raises breast cancer risk. If you absolutely need HRT, use the smallest dose that allays your symptoms; and use it for the shortest amount of time possible: your doctor will recommend two years or shorter. The good news: once you stop HRT, your cancer risk returns to normal; there are no long-lasting effects.
Have children — and do it earlier
Estrogen can help fuel the growth of breast cancer cells. When a woman becomes pregnant, her estrogen level drops. Thus the earlier (and more often) a woman is pregnant, the less lifetime exposure she has to estrogen. Becoming pregnant for the first time after age 35 (or never being pregnant) is considered a breast cancer risk. But since pregnancy itself carries risk — and since not every woman wants to be a mother — it’s wise to base parenthood decisions on more than breast cancer risk.
Breastfeed your children
Women who are breastfeeding experience lowered levels of estrogen. Because estrogen increases breast cancer risk, breastfeeding helps reduce that risk. According to the NCI, breast cancer levels are lower in women who’ve breastfed their children, compared to mothers who used formula.
Don’t smoke — and avoid secondhand smoke
We all know that smoking raises lung cancer risk — but did you know smoking also increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer? This increased risk applies to exposure to heavy secondhand smoke, as well. Beyond cancer, smoking carries a number of serious health risks. If you smoke, try to quit. If a close companion smokes, encourage him or her to quit, as well. Quitting’s not easy — but neither is cancer, heart attack, or stroke.
Learn your genetic risk
If you have a significant family history of breast cancer — your mother, a sister, or your daughter had breast cancer before the age of 50 — your own risk is increased. If you’re of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, you’re at a higher risk for breast cancer. While there’s nothing you can do about your genes, it pays to know whether they may betray you — so that you can be extra-vigilant about regularly checking your breasts for signs of cancer.