While you can’t change some breast cancer risk factors—family history and aging, for example—there are others that you can control.
Having a family history of breast cancer increases your risk, but most women who get breast cancer (about eight out of 10) do not have it in the family. Although there is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, there are things you can do that may lower your likelihood of getting it—whether you have a family history or not.
Here are five 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. 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 percent. 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.)
Moderate-intensity activities are at the level of a brisk walk that makes you breathe hard. 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 increases the likelihood of developing cancer, especially for women.
In an American Cancer Society study, women who spent six hours or more each a day sitting when not working had a 10 percent greater risk for invasive breast cancer compared with women who sat less than three hours a day, and an increased risk for other cancer types as well.
4. Limit alcohol. Research has shown that women who have two to three alcohol drinks a day have about a 20 percent higher risk compared to women who don’t drink at all. Women who have one drink a day have a very small increase in risk.
Excessive drinking increases the risk of other cancer types, too.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women have no more than one alcohol drink in a single day. A drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.
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 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 five years after stopping the combination of hormones.
Talk to 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.
To learn more about breast cancer, visit MaineHealth.org/cancer.
To read more stories and advice from MaineHealth Cancer Care Network, visit www.wgme.com/features/breast-cancer-care.