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Can You Really Reduce Your Breast Cancer Risk?

Oct. 8, 2019

Every day, new research suggests breast cancer may be more preventable than experts originally thought.

“Women can take steps to mitigate their risk of developing breast cancer and increase their chances of survival, if it occurs,” said Dr. Polly Niravath, breast oncologist and director of the Cancer Survivorship Program at Houston Methodist Cancer Center.

Steps to reduce your breast cancer risk include:

Physical activity

Exercise, especially vigorous exercise, could be the most important weapon in your arsenal.

“Exercise is a huge factor when it comes to reducing a woman’s risk of breast cancer,” Dr. Niravath says. “Some studies estimate a 15-30% risk reduction with moderate exercise, and the more a woman exercises, the more her breast cancer risk drops.”

Doctors think the exercise-estrogen link may account for the reduced risk. The greater your lifetime exposure to estrogen, the greater your breast cancer risk. Exercise suppresses estrogen production by promoting lean body mass.

Maintaining a healthy weight

Being overweight increases your risk of developing a variety of serious diseases, including breast cancer. Women with more fat cells produce more estrogen and tend to have higher insulin levels, which are linked to increased breast cancer risk.

“Maintaining a healthy body weight throughout her lifetime, with a body mass index of 18.5–24.9, has many health benefits,” Dr. Niravath says.

Limiting alcohol

Limiting alcohol to three alcoholic drinks per week can lower a woman’s risk. Women who consume two to five alcoholic drinks a day have about 1.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer compared to nondrinkers. Dr. Niravath said women who drink should take a daily multivitamin with folate, or folic acid. Studies indicate adequate daily folate intake may mitigate breast cancer risk associated with alcohol consumption.

Breastfeeding

Dr. Niravath also encourages new mothers to breastfeed their babies if possible.

“Evidence suggests that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer,” she explains. “We know that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the greater the protective effect.”

The reasons aren’t clear. One possible explanation is women who breastfeed have fewer menstrual cycles throughout their lives, and, therefore, less estrogen exposure.

Consuming olive oil

Studies indicate consuming more monounsaturated fats such as olive oil may protect against breast cancer, too.

Taking preventive medications

Your doctor may recommend medications such as tamoxifen and raloxifene if you’re at higher risk for breast cancer. However, these medications can produce menopause symptoms, so you should talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits.

Some studies indicate birth control pill use can increase a woman’s breast cancer risk. However, according to Dr. Niravath, the risk is slight.

“I don’t advise against taking birth control pills, unless a woman is at high risk,” she says.

Genetic testing and intervention

Talk to your doctor about whether genetic testing is right for you, if you have a strong family history of breast cancer. Mutations in certain genes, such as the BRCA genes, increase breast cancer risk. Women with this gene mutation may have more frequent screenings or prophylactic surgery (breast removal). 

Ovary and fallopian tube removal also may be an option. Besides reducing the risk of ovarian cancer, such removal prevents breast cancer by eliminating a hormone source that can fuel some types of the disease. 

Annual mammograms are still essential

Even if you follow all of these steps, every woman has at least a 12% risk of developing breast cancer. So it is extremely important to have an annual mammogram beginning at age 40. Mammography is still the most effective tool to diagnose early stage breast cancer, before tumors are large enough to be felt or cause symptoms.