Stacking the Deck Against Breast Cancer

10 actionable ways to reduce your risk

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Breast cancer is not 100 percent preventable, no matter how vigilant someone is. However, there are plenty of things you can do to limit your risks.

Some of the known risk factors are totally within your control, and it's your choice to live a healthier - and possibly cancer-free life.

Here are the actions you can take to protect yourself from the number one cancer among women.

1. You can do it! Reach and keep your ideal weight.

One of the best things you can do is to shape up. If you're not already at your ideal weight, then commit to making small changes that will help you get there.

Simple things over time add up to big results. For example, cut down on sugary drinks or stay away from snacking at night.

Weight gain after menopause is particularly dangerous because excess fat tissue contains estrogen, the hormone that drives the most common forms of breast cancer.

2. Move every day.

dailyRx spoke with Patrick D. Maguire, M.D., a radiation oncologist in North Carolina, and author of When Cancer Hits Home: An Empowered Patient is the Best Weapon Against Cancer. "An active lifestyle clearly decreases risk of breast cancer," Dr. Maguire says, "and if you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, it also improves your survivorship."

He continues, "So at least a moderately active lifestyle is probably the number one thing a woman can do to reduce her risks. Walking each day for half an hour would qualify - you don't have to be running marathons by any stretch."

3. Eat your veggies and lots of them.

Think rainbow when it comes to planning your meals. Eat as many colors as you can. Be creative - mix and match your colors.

Vegetables and fruits are high in fiber, have lots of vitamins and minerals and just help the body thrive.

Here are some really healthy foods, which are known to have anti-cancer properties.

  • Dark green leafy vegetables - kale, spinach, lettuce (but not iceberg), greens
  • Berries of all descriptions
  • Grapes - red, purple and black
  • Cruciferous veggies - broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts
  • Flaxseed in all its states - flour, meal, oil, ground seeds
  • Green tea
  • Whole grains - brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa (high in protein)
  • Soy - while there's controversy about this, isoflavones have cancer-fighting properties. It's best to stick with the least processed products.
  • Beans - lentils, peas and all legumes are excellent sources of fiber and protein.

4. Go easy on the alcohol.

No need to overindulge with alcohol. Research now shows that excessive drinking - several glasses of wine daily - can actually increase your risks of breast cancer.

The National Cancer Institute recommends:

  • One drink a day is good for women.
  • For men, two drinks per day are a good limit.
  • A drink = 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

5. Don't rely on supplements.

Nearly every day, there is some new something about a supplement for this or that. In terms of cutting your breast cancer risks, there is nothing definitive.

Dr. Maguire says, "If you’re nutritionally deficient in something you may need a supplement, but very few people are deficient if they’re eating a normal diet. I’m not a huge fan of supplements."

There could be one exception. Talk with your doctor about getting your vitamin D levels tested. Research is showing that deficiencies in this vitamin - which can't be obtained from food - are seen in patients with various types of cancer.

6. Get screened.

The only clinically proven method for detecting breast cancer at its earliest stages is mammography. Talk with your doctor about when and how often you should be screened.

MD Anderson Cancer Center recommends the following:

  • Be familiar with your breasts - be aware, look and feel with self-exams.
  • If you notice any changes - lumps, any changes in your nipples (pulling, discharge) or changes in texture (orange peel), see your doctor right away.
  • At age 20, begin having a doctor perform a clinical breast exam every 1-3 years.
  • Beginning at age 40, you will want to have an annual clinical breast exam and mammogram.

7. Know your family history and respond accordingly.

If you've had a close relative - mother, sister or aunt - who has had breast cancer, your screening recommendations may change. You'll want to talk about this with your doctor.

"If your mother or older sister has had breast cancer, you should start getting screening 10 years prior to the age of her diagnosis," Dr. Maguire says. "So if your mother was diagnosed at 45, you should start screening at age 35."

He continues, "If you have a very strong family history - if you have a young relative with breast cancer, or you have a relative with ovarian cancer, or you’re man with breast cancer, you should talk with someone about the pros and cons of genetic testing for BRCA genes," Dr. Maguire says.

8. Breastfeed at least six months.

Breastfeeding is good for you and your baby. Research shows that nursing decreases hormones that are related to cancer. When you stop breastfeeding, the body gets rid of the cells that may have DNA damage, which also reduces the risk of developing breast cancer in the future.

Nursing also protects your baby from gaining too much weight. Having excess weight, even as an infant and child can increase the odds of being overweight as an adult - a known risk factor for cancers and other diseases.

9. Take care with hormone supplements.

Once you reach menopause, you'll want to discuss the pros and cons of having any type of hormone therapy to treat symptoms. The large study - the Women's Health Initiative - found hormone therapy containing both estrogen and progestin increases a woman's risk of breast cancer.

So talk to your doctor about whether or not hormone therapy is a good option for you.

10. Talk to you doctor about your overall risks.

Breast cancer strikes one in eight women at some point in her life. Your individual risks are based on your lifestyle, family and personal history.

So it's a good idea to talk with your doctor and understand all of your breast cancer risks, and what you can do to minimize them.

MD Anderson has an online Cancer Risk Check questionnaire - see below. Maybe take this and share your results with your doctor.

Take charge of your health!

The American Institute of Cancer Research has tons of great advice about maintaining tip-top health and avoiding cancer along the way. Spend some time browsing through that website - see the link below.

No, breast cancer isn't 100 percent preventable, but you can take charge of your health in a number of ways that could help you bust the odds of ever developing the disease and living a healthier, happier life.

Review Date: 
October 21, 2011