Whenever you mention breast cancer, people tend to get worried. This is not surprising since nearly everyone knows someone touched by this disease. Fortunately, though, there is a lot of good news about breast cancer these days. Treatments keep getting more effective with fewer side effects, and we know more than ever about risk factors. And as with many diseases, doing all you can to prevent breast cancer is so much better than treating it once it has started. That’s why we at Westchester Health offer these tips to lower your risk of developing this potentially fatal disease.
8 things you can do to reduce your risk of breast cancer
Some risk factors, such as family history, can’t be changed. However, numerous studies have shown that the following lifestyle changes can significantly decrease your breast cancer risk, even in high-risk women.
1. Limit alcohol
The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer. Compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer. Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10% for each additional drink women regularly have each day. The general recommendation — based on research on the effect of alcohol on breast cancer risk — is to limit yourself to less than 1 drink per day.
2. Don’t smoke
Accumulating evidence suggests a link between smoking and breast cancer risk, particularly in premenopausal women. In addition, not smoking is one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
3. Control your weight and be physically active
Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer. This is especially true if obesity occurs later in life, particularly after menopause. Women who are physically active for at least 30 minutes a day have a lower risk of breast cancer. Regular exercise is also one of the best ways to help keep weight in check. For most healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 3 hours a week of moderate aerobic activity or an hour and a half of vigorous aerobic activity weekly, plus strength training at least twice a week.
The longer you breastfeed, the greater the role it plays in breast cancer prevention. Breastfeeding for a total of one year or more (combined for all children) has been proven to lower the risk of breast cancer. It also has great health benefits for your child(ren).
5. Avoid post-menopausal hormone therapy
Combination hormone therapy for more than 3-5 years increases the risk of breast cancer. If you are taking hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms, ask your doctor about other options — you might be able to manage your symptoms with non-hormonal therapies and medications. If you decide that the benefits of short-term hormone therapy outweigh the risks, use the lowest dose possible and continue to have your doctor monitor the length of time you are taking hormones.
6. Avoid birth control pills, particularly after age 35 or if you smoke
Birth control pills have both risks and benefits. The older a woman is, the higher the risks. While women are taking birth control pills, they have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. However, this risk goes away quickly after stopping the pill. The risk of stroke and heart attack is also greater while on the pill, particularly if a woman smokes. However, long-term use of the pill can also have important benefits, such as lowering the risk of ovarian cancer, colon cancer and uterine cancer (as well as preventing unwanted pregnancy). If you’re concerned about breast cancer, we recommend avoiding birth control pills to lower your risk.
7. Learn your family history
Women with a strong family history of cancer should take steps to do what they can to avoid developing it themselves, so it’s important for them to know their family history. You may be at high risk of breast cancer if you have a mother or sister who developed breast or ovarian cancer (especially at an early age) or if you have multiple family members (including males) who developed breast, ovarian or prostate cancer. A genetic counselor can help you understand your family history of the disease.
8. Get screened for breast cancer
Despite some recent controversy, studies show that breast cancer screening with mammography saves lives by detecting cancer early when it’s most treatable. For most women, we recommend regular annual mammograms starting at age 40 (earlier if you are at high risk).
Other important risk factors for breast cancer
There are a number of breast cancer risk factors that women have no control over, and knowing which ones apply to you can help you understand your risk and do what you can to lower it. If you feel you are at high risk, please come see us for screening and other tests. The following factors can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer:
- Being older, especially 60 or over
- Family history of breast cancer
- First menstrual period before age 12
- Menopause at age 55 or over
- First child after age 35
- No children
- Tall height (5’8” or taller)
- Dense breasts
- History of benign breast disease (such as atypical hyperplasia)
- Ashkenazi Jewish descent (certain breast cancer mutations appear to be more prevalent)
Get in the habit of doing regular self-exams
Regularly examining your breasts on your own can be an important way to find a breast cancer early when it’s more likely to be treated successfully. Not every cancer can be found this way but breast self-exam is a critical step you can and should take for yourself, especially in combination with mammograms and regular physical exams. About 20% of the time, breast cancers are found by physical examination rather than by mammography. If you notice any changes in your breasts, such as a new lump or changes in the skin, come see us.
Want to know more about lowering your risk of breast cancer? Please come see us.
At Westchester Health, our #1 goal is to help you get and stay healthy. A very important part of that is screening you for breast cancer. If you are concerned that you may be at risk of this disease, or would like to schedule a mammogram or other screening test, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health Internal Medicine specialists. If there is an issue, the sooner we can diagnose and start treating it, the better the outcome and your overall health. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.