Breast cancer is by far the most common cancer in women, with approximately one in eight American women developing it at some point during their life. And it’s not only women who get breast cancer – men are also at risk, albeit much more rarely.
Several factors can increase your risk for developing the disease. Scientists have been able to identify several of them, which allows doctors to monitor “high risk” patients more closely and catch the cancer earlier.
So what can you do to minimize your risk? Some risk factors for developing breast cancer are out of your control. For example, being a woman greatly increases your chance of developing the disease. Age and race can, too: women who are over 55 and African-American women are more likely to develop invasive breast cancers. Finally, between 5-10% of breast cancers are hereditary. To date, scientists have identified seven genes that are linked to the disease.
Now for the good news: Several risk factors are linked to our lifestyle. Therefore, with some small changes in your day-to-day habits, you can significantly reduce your risk for developing this common form of cancer.
- Decrease your Alcohol Intake: Consuming between two to five drinks daily makes you 1.5 times more likely to develop breast cancer, as compared to women who don’t drink.
- Lose Weight: Obesity, especially after reaching menopause, greatly increases your risk for breast cancer. Many breast cancers are caused by high levels of estrogen. In post-menopausal women, the main source of estrogen in the body is fat cells. If you’re obese, you have a lot of fat cells and therefore have more estrogen being released, which increases your risk of developing a tumor.
- Exercise: The Women’s Health Initiative was a long-term national study aimed at identifying strategies for improving women’s health – especially with regards to breast cancer, heart disease, colorectal cancer and bone fractures. This study showed that women who exercise only 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week could decrease their risk of breast cancer by 18%. Going out for a brisk walk counts!
- Take Vitamin D Supplements: Women with more aggressive tumors and poorer prognoses tend to have lower levels of vitamin D in their blood. Supplement your diet with 1,000 IU daily to ensure adequate levels of vitamin D.
- Eat Brassica Vegetables: These include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and the ever-dreaded Brussels sprouts! Women who eat 1.5 servings of these vegetables per day decrease their chance of getting breast cancer by 42%. Mushrooms and green tea can also decrease your risk.
- Stop Taking Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT): If you’re taking combined hormone therapy (estrogen plus progesterone), talk to you doctor about stopping your treatment. Women who are taking HRT or who recently stopped HRT (i.e., less than five years off medication) are at a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer. If you stopped taking HRT more than five years ago, you’re no longer at an increased risk.
- Decrease your Exposure to Environmental Toxins: Chemicals found in cigarette smoke, air pollution and plastics cause breast cancer in mice. Specifically, I’m talking about Bisphenol A (BPA), benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). BPA is used in the production of plastics including laptops, baby bottles and food containers. To minimize your exposure, avoid plastic containers with the resin identification code 7, unless the package states that it is BPA-free. If you do use plastic containers, avoid placing them in the microwave or dishwasher. Benzene and PAHs are commonly found in cigarette smoke and air pollution. So in case you need another reason, STOP SMOKING and convince the people around you to stop as well.
Although not foolproof, these seven lifestyle changes can greatly reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. If making these changes seems like drastic measures, start slowly by implementing one change at a time. And if you need additional incentive, these changes are also a great way to improve your general health and well-being, too!