October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and many local and national organizations are promoting breast cancer awareness, sharing information about the disease, and celebrating survivors. This month represents the most visible part of a year-round effort to educate about, screen for, and hopefully cure this devastating disease.
Of course, these are all worthy goals that deserve our attention and support. What is often missing are the steps women—especially young women—can take to reduce their risk for, or even prevent, breast cancer.
Approximately 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that around 300,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed and nearly 40,000 women die from this disease each year. Breast cancer can occur in men, but these cases are rare, so the focus is rightfully on women.
Much attention is given to genetic factors that increase the risk of breast cancer. These include certain gene mutations, including BRCA1 and BRCA2, as well as family history. A woman who has a first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) who has had breast cancer has nearly twice the risk of being diagnosed herself.
Considering that most women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history, it is also important to try to reduce other modifiable risk factors. This involves making health behavior changes that are probably familiar to most people. The good news is that these changes can also reduce the risk of other cancers, cardiovascular disease, and most other chronic diseases.
Avoid tobacco use. While the results of studies of smoking and breast cancer are mixed, a conservative interpretation is that smoking may increase the risk. Smoking increases the risk of other cancers, especially lung cancer, as well as heart attack, stroke, and other lung diseases. Not smoking, or quitting now, is among the best health decisions a woman can make.
Consume alcohol in moderation. Women should limit their alcohol intake to one drink per day. Women who consume more than two drinks per day increase their risk of breast cancer by 20% over women who don’t drink.
Maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight can increase the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women by 30–60%. Excess body fat can alter the levels of estrogen and other hormones. The good news is that losing as little as 10 pounds can reduce this risk.
Be physically active everyday. Regular activity and exercise can lower breast cancer risk by as much as 20%. In addition to helping with weight control, physical activity may lower the level of certain hormones that are associated with breast cancer. The biggest reduction in risk of breast cancer is seen in women who have been active their whole lives, but it is never too late to start.
Eat a healthy diet. The evidence from studies on the effect of diet on breast cancer risk is mixed, and more research is needed. In general, increasing fruit, vegetable, and whole grain intake and reducing red meat is associated with at least some decrease in breast cancer risk. These “healthy” foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients and eating more of these foods may lead to weight loss or prevent weight gain with age.
Every woman has a different breast cancer risk based on her unique family history, biology, and lifestyle. But by making some simple health behavior changes, all women can reduce their risk for, or even prevent, breast cancer and improve their overall health.