One in eight American women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. That’s a pretty frightening statistic. Fortunately, scientists are learning how lifestyle choices may affect breast cancer risk. That gives women today something that wasn’t available to previous generations: the opportunity to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer.
Of course, women have no control over some risk factors, such as advancing age and a family history of breast cancer. Never bearing a child and bearing a first child after age 30 increase breast cancer risk, too. Although childbearing is to some extent a controllable risk factor, having a first child before age 30 is impossible for many women. For that reason, family planning is grouped with the uncontrollable risk factors.
So how can a woman reduce her risk of breast cancer, which kills more than 40,000 American women each year? Here’s a list of the steps you can take.
- Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Government guidelines call for us to eat nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables. The average American adult barely manages to eat five—and that’s counting the apples in apple pie, the lettuce and tomato on a Big Mac, the tomatoes in pizza sauce and french fried potatoes. (For the record, a serving equals 1/2 cup cooked or chopped raw vegetables or fruit, 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables, 3/4 cup vegetable or fruit juice or 1 medium piece of whole fruit.)
Eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables will give your body the ammunition it needs to battle disease. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins and other substances that reduce risk of breast and other cancers, as well as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
- Forget vanity. Today’s best reasons for avoiding excess weight have to do with health. In addition to being linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, obesity has been implicated in a variety of other ills, including other cancers, heart disease and diabetes. (Obesity is defined as being more than 20 percent above a healthy weight for your size.)
While being overweight is a risk factor for breast cancer, a high-fat diet by itself is not. Bear in mind, however, that a high-fat diet increases the odds that you will become or remain overweight. What’s more, a high-fat diet in itself has been linked to other cancers, heart disease and stroke.
Although scientists don’t know exactly how excess weight increases breast cancer risk, they do know that fat cells can convert hormones called androgens into estrogens. As mentioned earlier, estrogen promotes the growth of breast cancer cells.
- Get fit. Several studies have suggested that breast-cancer risk is lower among female athletes and among women who engage in moderate physical activity than among women who are mainly sedentary. Experts believe that regular physical activity changes the levels of various hormones in a woman’s body and that the resulting hormone balance offers protection from breast cancer. However, results from the ongoing Harvard Nurses’ Health study show no link between exercise and breast-cancer risk.
Although the jury is still out on exercise’s role in cancer prevention, there is no denying its role in weight control. And there’s no question that obesity after menopause raises breast-cancer risk, so getting into the fitness habit at an early age is certainly beneficial.
If you are not currently active, start out slowly, perhaps with a 10-minute daily walk, gradually increasing your activity level.
- Limit intake of alcoholic beverages. Many studies indicate that drinking alcohol increases risk of breast cancer. In the Harvard Nurses’ Health study, women who drank two or more drinks daily were 25 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than women who drank less. (One drink equals either 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of spirits.)
Why is alcohol bad for breasts? Because it increases the amount of circulating estrogen in a woman’s body. Over time, elevated estrogen levels make the breast more susceptible to cancer. Preservatives in some alcohols may also play a role.
- Consider raloxifene. Women may want to talk with their doctor about taking raloxifene. A so-called designer estrogen, raloxifene mimics the way estrogen works in the body, helping to maintain bone density and even imparting some cardiovascular benefits. However, unlike menopausal hormone therapy, raloxifene is not associated with increased risk of either breast or uterine cancer.