Reducing Your Risk of Breast Cancer

Although certain genetic factors may not be preventable, there are other precautions you can take to decrease your risk of developing breast cancer. If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, discuss with your physician whether or not you should be tested for the breast and ovarian cancer gene mutation (BRCA1 and BRCA2). Women who carry this gene are at very high risk for developing breast and ovarian cancers and should be followed closely.

The general precautions you can take to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer include:

Get Screened Regularly

The success of breast cancer treatment lies in detecting and treating breast cancer in the earliest stages. The following practices will help promote early detection of breast cancer:

  • Breast Self-Exam: Traditionally, women have been strongly encouraged to perform monthly breast self-exams beginning at age 20 to look for breast lumps or changes that might signal breast cancer. While most studies have not shown that women who routinely perform breast self-exams have a lower risk of dying from breast cancer, many physicians still strongly recommend the practice given its low cost and the feeling of self-control than many women gain from proactively addressing their own breast health. If you would like to perform breast self-exams, learn how to do them correctly and perform them monthly.
  • Mammograms : Although controversy still swirls around the relative risks and benefits of routine mammograms between ages 40-49, most major organizations, including the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and (most recently) the US Preventative Services Task Force, now recommend that women should have mammograms every 1-2 years starting at age 40. They suggest earlier mammograms for women at high risk for breast cancer (ie, first degree family members diagnosed when younger than 50).
  • Clinical Breast Examinations: These are recommended at least every three years beginning at age 20, and annually after age 40.
  • Prophylactic Mastectomy: Some women who have a very strong family history of breast cancer and who also carry the breast and ovarian cancer gene mutation (BRCA1, BRCA2) may wish to discuss with their physicians the possibility of having a mastectomy before they develop breast cancer.

Breast Self-Exam

© 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

Limit Exposure to Estrogen When Possible

High levels of estrogen have been linked to the development of breast cancer. For older women, the greatest exposure to estrogen is via postmenopausal hormone replacement. Therefore, you should have a frank conversation with your doctor as to the risks and benefits of estrogen replacement relative to breast cancer.

Other lifestyle factors may also increase your exposure to estrogen. If possible, try to limit these factors:

  • Overweight after the age of menopause
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Physical inactivity

Maintain Healthy Weight

Being overweight—particularly after menopause—may increase your chance of developing breast cancer. This is due to the fact that after menopause, most of the estrogen in a woman’s body comes from her fat tissue. The more fat on the body, the higher the degree of estrogen.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

Studies have shown that women who drink 2-4 alcoholic drinks daily have a 40% greater risk of developing breast cancer than nondrinkers. This may be due to the fact that alcohol may alter the way a woman's body metabolizes estrogen and may cause blood estrogen levels to rise, increasing the risk of breast cancer onset.

Don’t Smoke

Smoking greatly increases your risk of several cancers, including breast cancer.

Exercise

Exercise helps maintain weight and modulates high levels of estrogen. It is also believed that low to moderate levels of exercise may enhance the immune system, which ultimately may slow the growth rate or kill cancer cells. Overall, exercise has many benefits and is recommended for overall health and reducing the risk of breast cancer.

References:

National Cancer Institute. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/ . Accessed July 2006.

Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Available at: http://www.komen.org . Accessed July 2006.



Last reviewed April 2007 by Jondavid Pollock, MD, PhD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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