Your risk of developing breast cancer — which is about 13 percent for women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS) — depends on both factors that you can control and some you cannot.
Factors you can't control include things such as your age, race and your family history, according to Jane Kakkis, MD, a surgical oncologist and the medical director of breast surgery at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
Some factors that you can control — such as your weight, lifestyle choices and diet — also play a role in your overall risk of developing breast cancer, Dr. Kakkis says. You should always talk to your doctor about your own personal risk for breast cancer, but here are some general strategies that can help decrease your risk.
1. Get Regular Exercise
Exercise is one of the important things to add to your life to decrease your overall risk of any type of cancer, Dr. Kakkis says. Regular exercise not only can decrease your risk of developing breast cancer, but it can also help increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment for women with breast cancer, according to a July 2017 report in the European Journal of Breast Health.
"There is a pretty substantial decrease in breast cancer development with regular exercise," Dr. Kakkis says. She also notes that regular exercise in younger women has the added bonus of helping to prevent osteoporosis later in life.
Adults should aim to get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity weekly to lower their risk of cancer. Reaching or exceeding the 300-minute guideline is "ideal," according to the ACS.
That 300-minute goal is equivalent to doing a one-hour workout five times per week.
2. Eat a Healthy Diet
A healthy diet is crucial to general health, Dr. Kakkis explains. There has been an increased effort to pinpoint the specific types of diets that may decrease the overall risk of cancer. Research has looked at some of the health effects of different diets such as the Mediterranean diet and plant-based diets, with recent studies focusing on a potential link between an anti-inflammatory diet and certain types of breast cancer, she notes.
Diets with higher levels of inflammatory foods were linked to higher rates of breast cancer, per an August 2019 study in Nutrients.
Research on specific diets that may help prevent breast cancer is still emerging. It's further complicated by the fact that some people have a tendency toward inflammation in the body and some people don't, Dr. Kakkis says. If you think you are prone to inflammation, you can simply try a low-inflammatory diet and see if it helps with certain symptoms such as swelling of hands of feet and skin changes, she says.
3. Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices
The ACS recommends the following healthy strategies to lowering your cancer risk:
- Quit smoking. "Smoking increases breast cancer and a variety of other cancers and causes other substantial health problems," Dr. Kakkis says.
- Avoid alcohol. Any amount of alcohol consumption increases cancer risk, according to Dr. Kakkis.
- Avoid carcinogens. While this is very broad, Dr. Kakkis explains that in general, everyone can do their best to avoid carcinogens in their daily lives as much as possible. That could be everything from limiting radiation exposure from cell phone use to decreasing chemical exposure by swapping plastic bottles for stainless-steel versions.
- Get enough sleep.
The goal is to optimize your health so your body can function at its best, Dr. Kakkis says.
"When you're well-rested and hydrated, your body can mobilize the nutrients you eat and build up your immune system," she says. "Smoking, drinking — those things damage your body's cells and the immune system is being utilized to repair those cells instead of mobilizing the cancer surveillance cells."
4. Maintain an Optimal Weight
Being overweight increases your risk of breast cancer "substantially," Dr. Kakkis says. She recommends maintaining a healthy weight that is appropriate for your age and body type. This doesn't have to involve extreme measures, she notes.
"We're not talking about marathon running," Dr. Kakkis says. "We're talking about being in a reasonable range."
Weight gain from increased body fat specifically is associated with early reoccurrence and lower rates of survival among people with breast cancer, according to the July 2017 European Journal on Breast Health report. The journal did note the specific challenges that individuals enduring breast cancer treatment have in avoiding weight gain and recommended a combination of resistance and aerobic exercise if possible as a weight-management strategy.
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5. Limit Hormone Replacement Therapy
While hormone replacement therapy (HRT) (also called hormone therapy) with estrogen for women going through and after menopause used to be considered somewhat standard treatment, it is now much more of a personal decision.
That decision is between a woman and her doctor and depends on her personal experience with menopause. Overall, if HRT is used, the goal is to reduce the amount of hormone dose and the length of time women do use it, Dr. Kakkis explains.
"We're trying to overcome a period of time when all women were put on it," she says. Usage should be customized for each individual, Dr. Kakkis notes. "Not all women need it and women who do need it don't need it very long."
6. Manage Your Stress Levels
While studies have been conflicted on a specific link between stress and breast cancer, stress does affect your immune system in general, according to a January 2018 systematic review in Clujul Medical.
And because your immune system plays an important role in recognizing and clearing any potential cancer cells from your body, keeping your immune system functioning at its optimal level might help decrease your overall cancer risk according to a December 2015 report in Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.
But how exactly do you accomplish that? "Everyone responds to stress differently, so stress reduction is different for everyone," Dr. Kakkis says.
Exercise and sleep are crucial to not only decreasing the stress you encounter on a daily basis, but also managing how you cope with stress long term as well, she notes. "Exercise begets sleep and being well-rested actually helps you work through and cope with stressful situations," Kakkis notes.
Other Stress-Management Strategies to Try
If stress is a concern for you, along with speaking to a health professional, you can also try a variety of stress-management techniques, such as:
- Focusing on gratitude
- Spending time outdoors
- Working with a therapist
And as you look to decrease your risk of breast cancer, take small steps along the way, rather than try to overhaul your entire lifestyle all at once, Dr. Kakkis recommends. The goal is to take small steps to optimize your life, she says. "Make one change, stick to it, then make another change. You can't always go from zero to 100 percent."
- Clujul Medical: “Psychological Stress and Breast Cancer Incidence: a Systematic Review”
- American Cancer Society: "How Common Is Breast Cancer?"
- Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention: "Understanding the Role of the Immune System in the Development of Cancer: New Opportunities for Population-Based Research"
- European Journal of Breast Health: "Risk Reduction Strategies in Breast Cancer Prevention"
- American Cancer Society: "American Cancer Society Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity"
- Nutrients: "Dietary Inflammatory Index and Risk of Breast Cancer Based on Hormone Receptor Status: A Case-Control Study in Korea"
- Susan G. Komen Foundation: "Factors Under Study"
- American Cancer Society: "Lifestyle-Related Breast Cancer Risk Factors"