Many local and national organizations are busy promoting breast cancer awareness, sharing information about the disease, raising money to support research, and celebrating survivors as a part of Breast Cancer Awareness month. This 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. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
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. Among these is regular exercise.
Regular activity and exercise can lower breast cancer risk by as much as 30%, according to a study of over 3,000 women. The intensity of the activity didn’t seem to matter, so participation in light activity such as housework and gardening was as effective as walking. What did matter was the amount of time spent being active. Women who reported even low amounts of activity showed a 6% reduction in breast cancer risk, but the greatest benefits were seen in women who were active for over 10 hours per week.
Women who exercise regularly also have a lower chance of recurrence of breast cancer. As many as 1 in 5 of breast cancer survivors experience a recurrence within 10 years. Even relatively low levels of exercise may reduce this risk, and women who do exercise have greater rates of survival. The amount of exercise needed to realize these benefits is equivalent to 45–60 minutes of brisk walking five days per week.
Exercise is effective for reducing breast cancer risk because it lowers levels of the hormone estrogen. This is important because estrogen is linked with the majority of breast cancers and is especially relevant for women with estrogen receptor-positive cancers.
Exercise can also reduce the risk of breast cancer by helping with weight control. Excess body fat increases levels of estrogen, resulting in a higher risk of breast cancer diagnosis and recurrence. Regular physical activity is essential for losing weight and keeping it off. Exercise can also help reduce the increased risk of breast cancer that comes with weight gain, something that is common as women get older.
Women who have been active their whole lives have the lowest risk of breast cancer, but it is never too late to start. Women who exercise also tend to handle breast cancer treatment better than women who aren’t active. In fact, post-cancer exercise programs are becoming more common as a way to help women recover from cancer treatment and prevent recurrence.
Other lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of breast cancer include maintaining a healthy body weight, consuming alcohol in moderation, not smoking, and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. The good news is that these changes will also help you reduce your risk of other cancers, cardiovascular disease, and most other chronic diseases, too.
Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. But it doesn't have to be that way. What can I help you with? firstname.lastname@example.org | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr