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Preventing breast cancer

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Are you aware that you have a one-in-eight chance of developing breast cancer?

Although having a strong family history of the disease or inheriting certain genetic defects, such as BRCA gene mutations, increases your breast cancer risk, every woman can reduce her odds of developing the disease by taking these steps:

  1. Exercise. Research from the Women’s Health Initiative, an ongoing 15-year research program involving more than 160,000 postmenopausal women, showed that one-and-a-half to two hours a week of brisk walking reduced a woman’s breast cancer risk by 18 percent. Walking 10 hours a week reduced the risk a bit more.
  2. Get to your healthy weight. Being overweight or obese—especially after menopause—increases your chances of developing breast cancer. The more body fat you have, the higher your estrogen levels. As estrogen levels rise, so does your cancer risk. Ask your doctor for a sensible target—not what you weighed at 18. And though it’s smart to lose weight, don’t rush it—adopting healthy habits you can maintain the rest of your life takes time. If you’re obese or have an eating disorder like binge eating, support and counseling will improve your chances of losing weight and keeping it off.
  3. Avoid or strictly limit alcohol. If you’re postmenopausal, having as little as one drink a day (of wine, beer or liquor) increases your risk of dying from breast cancer by 30 percent, according to an American Cancer Society study. Research confirms a link between drinking and a greater breast cancer risk in premenopausal women, too.
  4. Avoid cancer-causing substances. Studies show that pesticides, tobacco products and charred red meat can up your odds of developing breast cancer.
  5. Eat more cancer-fighting foods. Evidence suggests foods and beverages rich in antioxidants called flavonoids (fruits, vegetables, green tea and coffee); whole soy foods (like tofu, tempeh or soybeans) and vitamin D–rich foods (cod liver oil and fortified skim or low-fat milk) offer some protection against breast cancer. Caution: Breast cancer survivors should talk to their doctors before adding soy to their diets, since some researchers think soy’s ability to increase estrogen levels in the body could promote the disease’s recurrence.
  6. Be aware of changes in your breasts. See your doctor for a yearly breast exam and schedule an annual screening mammography. If you’re at very high risk, add a magnetic resonance imaging scan to your yearly routhine. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the more successfully it can be treated.