8 ways to prevent breast cancer

Breast cancer. Just reading those words can make many women worry. And that’s natural.

Nearly everyone knows someone touched by the disease.

But there is a lot of good news about breast cancer these days. Treatments keep getting better, and we know more than ever about ways to prevent the disease. These eight simple steps can help lower the risk of breast cancer. Not every one applies to every woman, but together they can have a big impact.

  1. Keep Weight in Check
    It’s easy to tune out because it gets said so often, but maintaining a healthy weight is an important goal for everyone. Being overweight can increase the risk of many different cancers, including breast cancer, especially after menopause.
  2. Be Physically Active
    Exercise is as close to a silver bullet for good health as there is, and 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.
  3. Avoid Too Much Alcohol
    Alcohol can be good for the heart, but when it comes to cancer, there’s really nothing good about it. Even moderate amounts increase the risk of breast cancer. In general, if you drink moderately (no more than one drink a day for women), the overall health benefits of drinking outweigh the risks. But if you don’t drink, don’t feel that you need to start.
  4. Breastfeed, If Possible
    Breastfeeding for a total of one year or more (combined for all children) lowers the risk of breast cancer. It also has great health benefits for the child.
  5. Avoid Birth Control Pills, Particularly After Age 35 or If You Smoke
    Birth control pills have both risks and benefits. The younger a woman is, the lower the risks are. While women are taking birth control pills, they have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. This risk goes away quickly, though, after stopping the pill. The risk of stroke and heart attack is also increased while on the pill – particularly if a woman smokes. However, long-term use can also have important benefits, like lowering the risk of ovarian cancer, colon cancer and uterine cancer – not to mention unwanted pregnancy – so there’s also a lot in its favor. If you’re very concerned about breast cancer, avoiding birth control pills is one option to lower risk.
  6. Avoid Post-Menopausal Hormones
    Post-menopausal hormones shouldn’t be taken long term to prevent chronic diseases, like osteoporosis and heart disease. Studies show they have a mixed effect on health, increasing the risk of some diseases and lowering the risk of others, and both estrogen-only hormones and estrogen-plus-progestin hormones increase the risk of breast cancer. If women do take post-menopausal hormones, it should be for the shortest time possible. The best person to talk to about the risks and benefits of post-menopausal hormones is your doctor.
  7. Find Out Your Family History
    Women with a strong family history of cancer can take special steps to protect themselves, so it’s important for women 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 doctor or genetic counselor can help you understand your family history of the disease.
  8. Tamoxifen and Raloxifene for Women at High Risk
    Although not commonly thought of as a “healthy behavior,” taking the prescription drugs tamoxifen and raloxifene can significantly lower the risk of breast cancer in woman at high risk of the disease. Approved by the FDA for breast cancer prevention, these powerful drugs can have side effects, so they aren’t right for everyone. If you think you’re at high risk, talk to your doctor to see if tamoxifen or raloxifene may be right for you.

Don’t Forget Screening
Despite some controversy, breast cancer screening remains the single best way to protect yourself from the disease. It doesn’t help prevent cancer, but it can help find cancer early when it’s most treatable.

All women over the age of 20 should get screened regularly for breast cancer. The right screening tests mainly depend on a woman’s age:

Get a clinical breast exam about every 3 years.

Get a mammogram and clinical breast exam every year.

If you’re at high risk, you may need to have mammograms more often and begin them at an earlier age. You may also need to have some different types of screening tests. And don’t rely on finding breast cancer yourself with self-exams. It’s OK to do breast self-exams, but they don’t take the place of mammograms and clinical breast exams. Any changes in your breasts should be reported to a doctor as soon as possible.

Other Important Risk Factors for Breast Cancer
Unfortunately, there are also a number of important breast cancer risk factors that women have no control over. Knowing which ones apply to you can help you understand your risk and do what you can to lower it. If you feel you’re at high risk, talk to a doctor or other health professional. These can increase a woman’s breast cancer risk:

  • Older age, especially 60 years or over.
  • Family history of breast cancer.
  • First menstrual period (menarche) before age 12.
  • Menopause at age 55 or over.
  • First childbirth after age 35.
  • No children.
  • Tall height (5’8” or taller).
  • Dense breasts.
  • History of benign breast disease (like atypical hyperplasia).

To learn about your risk of developing breast cancer, answer these questions about eating habits, exercise and other behaviors. In return, you’ll get a personalized estimate of your risk and suggestions for reducing it.

Category: Siteman Cancer Center

About the Author ()

The Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital & Washington University School of Medicine is the only cancer center in Missouri to hold the prestigious Comprehensive Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute and membership in the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Siteman offers the expertise of more than 350 Washington University research scientists and physicians who provide care for more than 8,000 newly diagnosed patients each year at a main campus in St. Louis and satellite centers in west St. Louis County, St. Charles County and south St. Louis County.

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