What can I do to prevent breast cancer? It’s one of the most common questions women have.
For cancer to develop you need mutated cells (inherited, acquired, or both) as well as a local and systemic (whole body) neighborhood (microenvironment) that enables growth. The mutated cells can come from radiation, carcinogens (environmental and viral), and age. Beyond avoiding mutations, we can try to change the local and systemic neighborhood that our cells live in. Some things that improve the cell community are lifestyle changes, such as reducing obesity, exercising regularly, and following a healthy diet.
The American Institute for Cancer Research funds and analyzes studies that investigate the links between lifestyle and cancer. One of their research reviews examined lifestyle changes that could prevent breast cancer. The conclusion: More than 70,000 breast cancer cases a year—40%of all cases—could be prevented with lifestyle measures such as maintaining a healthy weight, breast feeding, eating well, exercising, and limiting alcohol consumption.
The biggest single thing a woman can do to lower her risk, especially after menopause, is maintain a healthy weight. A growing body of evidence indicates excess weight increases estrogen and affects insulin and other growth factors. These hormones create a more stimulating neighborhood for the cancer to grow and also make it more difficult for emerging abnormal cells to be eliminated.
A lifestyle issue, not often discussed, is the age of first pregnancy. The data are clear that early first pregnancy is protective and getting pregnant for the first time after 35 increases the risk more than never being pregnant at all. The full explanation for this finding is not clear. Breastfeeding also has been shown to decrease breast cancer risk, especially in women with a family history of the disease. The greater the total number of months of breastfeeding the greater the risk reduction.
Other things you can do to reduce your breast cancer risk:
- Eat a healthy diet that is low in animal fat and high in whole grains and fruits and vegetables (there is no data indicating that a specific diet, per se, can help reduce breast cancer risk).
- Get regular exercise.
- Take a multivitamin and make sure it includes adequate folic acid.
- Use hormone therapy to treat menopausal symptoms for the shortest time period necessary, if at all.
- Avoid unnecessary X-rays.
- Drink alcohol in moderation and make sure you take folic acid when you do drink.
- Evaluate any breast symptoms or changes that develop.
- Have mammograms when appropriate.
- Consider raloxifene (Evista) if you need to take a drug to prevent bone loss post menopause.
To help us learn more about breast cancer prevention, you can:
- Join the Army of Women to participate in studies sponsored by Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation on the normal breast. These studies are designed to help us find a way to prevent breast cancer.
- Learn more about the Health of Women study, a Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation program identifying and studying breast cancer risk factors.