Here are some of the choices you can make to boost your good health and help lower your risk of breast cancer.
1. Stay Active
Of all of the lifestyle choices women can make to reduce breast cancer risk, physical activity tops the list. On the other side of the coin, being sedentary boosts your risk of breast cancer. According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC), lack of exercise increases breast cancer risk by 60 per cent.
Don’t fret too much if you’ve never exercised. Women who only become active after menopause have a rate of breast cancer that’s close to that of lifelong exercisers. “It’s best if people are active throughout their lives but if they haven’t been, they can still benefit from exercise”. “It’s never too late to start to be physically active.”
Why does exercise cut cancer risk? Researchers suspect that physical activity helps keep women lean. And staying lean prevents fat cells from producing extra estrogen, the hormone responsible for most breast cancers. “It all adds up to lowering your estrogen levels; you want to do everything in your power to keep your circulating estrogen levels low,” says Brigitte.
2. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Keeping a healthy body weight – defined as a body mass index (BMI) of less than 25 kg/m2 – protects women against breast cancer. But just how little weight you can gain and still be protected is not yet known. Women who did not use hormones and who did not gain weight in adulthood were at the lowest risk for postmenopausal breast cancer. The bottom line: Don’t gain a lot of weight!
3. Limit Alcohol Intake
Consuming alcoholic beverages increases estrogen in the blood and therefore ups your breast cancer risk. However, this increased risk can be tempered by consumption of folate. The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation recommends that all women play it safe and limit their alcohol consumption to no more than one drink (five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of liquor) per day.
4. Eat more Vegetables and Fruit
There’s growing evidence that eating vegetables and fruit lowers your risk of cancer in general, and, to a lesser extent, breast cancer in particular. At play here are plant chemicals, or phytochemicals. Some phytochemicals take up space on cells where the body’s own estrogen would otherwise attach, thereby reducing exposure to the body’s hormones.
Since you may need several of these different phytochemicals to lower your cancer risk, it’s probably wise to eat a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. “We can’t tell women how much they reduce their risk by eating the recommended daily intake but it can’t hurt to eat healthy foods, and if it offsets your breast cancer risk even a little, you’re just that much further ahead.”
5. Eat the Right Fats
Observational studies show that Asian women, who traditionally consume a diet relatively low in fat, have much lower rates of breast cancer than do Canadian women. Other research shows that the higher the dietary fat intake across a population of women, the higher their breast cancer rates.
But while some fats may increase breast cancer risks, other fats may be protective. Studies have concluded that omega-3 fatty acids, found in some fish, can prevent the development and spread of breast cancer in animals. In women, the role of omega-3 fatty acids in preventing breast cancer is an interesting area, but the research is still preliminary.
There is good evidence that omega-3 fatty acids protect the heart, though. If eating fish, especially fatty fish, at least twice a week is good for the heart, it’s probably good for overall health – including breast health.
6. Carefully consider HRT
The combination of estrogen and progestin, another female hormone, in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) increases breast cancer risk. HRT increases breast cancer risk by 2.3 per cent per year of HRT use.
Perhaps the good news is that the breast cancer risk among HRT users does not increase until four to five years after starting the therapy. As well, “the risk goes down as soon as you stop taking HRT.
7. Consider taking Aspirin every day
Since estrogen is such an important hormone when it comes to breast cancer, it’s not surprising that decreased exposure to this hormone typically translates into reduced cancer risks. Aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) inhibit estrogen production through a pathway that is controlled by prostaglandins. Aspirin blocks these prostaglandins, which, in turn, block estrogen production. Other NSAIDs had a somewhat weaker protective effect.
8. Practise Breast Self-Examination
Many cancers are found by women during monthly breast self-examination (BSE). Over the long term, BSE is just as effective as mammography and examination by a physician. It is found that the breast cancer mortality rate for women aged 40 to 49 was about the same whether they had undergone annual mammography plus expert physical examination of the breast or had received a single physical breast exam and instruction on BSE.
9. If You’re at High Risk, Consider Tamoxifen Therapy
Women at high risk for breast cancer because of a strong family history of the disease may benefit from the anti-estrogen effects of drugs such as tamoxifen (Nolvadex), even if they have not been diagnosed with breast cancer. In the Breast Cancer Prevention Trial carried out by the National Cancer Institute in the U.S., women treated with tamoxifen developed almost 50 per cent fewer cancers of the breast than women taking an inactive placebo.
10. If you have the option, have your children young and breastfeed them
Women who have their first child before the age of 30 are at slightly lower risk for breast cancer than women who wait to bear children and those who don’t have children at all. Some research also suggests that breastfeeding helps reduce breast cancer risk.
11. Minimize your Exposure to Pesticides
It’s “prudent” to minimize exposure to pesticides and other potentially harmful chemicals as a precaution against breast cancer. It’s only prudent – and not a government recommendation – because the evidence linking exposure to pesticides and breast cancer is still new and not as conclusive as that associated with other lifestyle habits.
12. Don’t Smoke
There is a link between smoking and breast cancer. However, not all the research points to such a connection. But since smoking causes at least 30 per cent of all cancer deaths, and almost all deaths from lung cancer, it’s a no-brainer to cut out smoking to reduce overall cancer risk. In doing so, you just might be cutting your chances of developing breast cancer.