While you can’t change some breast cancer risk factors-family history and aging, for example-there are some risk factors that you can control. And while there is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, there are things you can do that may lower your risk. Here are 5 ways to help protect your breast health.
1. Watch your weight. Being overweight or obese increases breast cancer risk. This is especially true after menopause and for women who gain weight as adults. After menopause, most of your estrogen comes from fat tissue. Having more fat tissue can increase your chance of getting breast cancer by raising estrogen levels. Also, women who are overweight tend to have higher levels of insulin, another hormone. Higher insulin levels have also been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer.
If you’re already at a healthy weight, stay there. If you’re carrying extra pounds, try to lose some. There’s some evidence that losing weight may lower breast cancer risk. Losing even a small amount of weight – for example, half a pound a week – can also have other health benefits and is a good place to start.
2. Exercise regularly. Many studies have found that exercise is a breast-healthy habit. The difference in risk between the most active and the least active women is typically around 25%. In one study from the Women’s Health Initiative, as little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking reduced a woman’s risk by 18%. Walking 10 hours a week reduced the risk a little more.
The American Cancer Society recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. (Or a combination of both.) And don’t cram it all into a single workout – spread it out over the week.
3. Limit time spent sitting. Evidence is growing that sitting time, no matter how much exercise you get when you aren’t sitting, increases the likelihood of developing cancer, especially for women. In an American Cancer Society study, women who spent 6 hours or more a day sitting outside of work had a 10% greater risk for invasive breast cancer compared with women who sat less than 3 hours a day, and an increased risk for other cancer types as well.
4. Limit alcohol. Research has shown that women who have 2 to 5 alcoholic drinks daily have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who drink only 1 drink a day or not at all. Studies have found evidence that links even lower levels of drinking alcohol to an increase in breast cancer risk. As little as 3 to 6 glasses of wine a week has been shown to slightly increase breast cancer risk.
It’s not clear how or why alcohol increases the risk, or which women are most likely to be affected. But limiting alcohol is especially important for women who have other risk factors for breast cancer, such as breast cancer in their families.
5. Avoid or limit hormone replacement therapy. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was used more often in the past to help control night sweats, hot flashes, and other troublesome symptoms of menopause. But researchers now know that postmenopausal women who take a combination of estrogen and progestin may be more likely to develop breast cancer. Breast cancer risk appears to return to normal within 5 years after stopping the combination of hormones.
Talk with your doctor about all the options to control your menopause symptoms, and the risks and benefits of each. If you do decide to try HRT, it is best to use it at the lowest dose that works for you and for as short a time as possible.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team, October 2016