Few diseases elicit as many emotions as breast cancer. We all know someone who has dealt with it; we all fear it and feel powerless over it. But despite some contributing factors like family history, toxins in the environment and too many unknowns about what else might cause it to develop, there are some things that can be controlled.
Want to gain some extra information about your risks? Here are some myths and truths that can help you manage the information at hand.
1. Truth: Extra pounds are a risk factor.
Not only does obesity increases your chances of getting breast cancer in the first place, it worsens the outcome in women who have already been diagnosed, according to studies. What’s the connection? Fat cells make more estrogen, which can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers develop and grow.
2. Myth: You’re only at risk if breast cancer runs in your family.
While there is a genetic component, the fact is that the vast majority of women with breast cancer have no family history. In fact, only 5 percent to 10 percent of all breast cancers are hereditary, due to mutations in genes associated with the disease. The mutations appear more commonly among certain geographic or ethnic groups: people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent and people of Norwegian, Icelandic or Dutch ancestry.
3. Truth: Exercise can help decrease your risk.
What’s more, in the long run, it keeps you healthy if you have already been diagnosed, reducing your risk of recurrence. Exercising four or more hours a week may play a hand in decreasing levels of circulating hormones, like estrogen, that may contribute to some breast cancers. The effect of exercise on breast cancer may be greatest among premenopausal women who are of normal or low weight. And by helping you maintain a healthy weight, exercise helps with another risk factor-obesity (see item 1).
4. Truth: Dense breasts increase your risk.
There are two things at play here. Since both dense breast tissue and tumors appear white on mammograms, it’s harder to detect breast cancers in women with dense breasts. What’s more, high density is also linked with an increase in tumors.
5. Myth: Dense breasts increase a woman’s chance of dying from the disease.
While having dense breast tissue is a known factor in increasing your risk, it does not increase your odds of death if you do develop the disease, compared to other breast cancer patients, according to a new study.
6.Truth: Drinking and smoking both contribute to the risk of breast cancer.
Having two drinks a day increases your risk by 21 percent, according to studies. And in one study, smokers had a 16 percent higher risk than subjects who never smoked.
7. Myth: Breast self-exams are the best way to catch early breast cancer.
Neither breast self-exams nor clinical breast exams have been found to decrease the risk of dying from breast cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They may be used in conjunction with mammograms to help catch breast cancer early, but self-exams shouldn’t be your only screening tool.
Breast cancer prevention starts with healthy habits — such as limiting alcohol and staying physically active. Understand what you can do to reduce your breast cancer risk.
If you’re concerned about breast cancer, you might be wondering if there are steps you can take toward breast cancer prevention. Some risk factors, such as family history, can’t be changed. However, there are lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk.
What can I do to reduce my risk of breast cancer?
Lifestyle changes have been shown in studies to decrease breast cancer risk even in high-risk women. The following are steps you can take to lower your risk:
- Limit alcohol.The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer. The general recommendation — based on research on the effect of alcohol on breast cancer risk — is to limit yourself to less than 1 drink per day as even small amounts increase risk.
- Don’t smoke.Accumulating evidence suggests a link between smoking and breast cancer risk, particularly in premenopausal women. In addition, not smoking is one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
- Control your weight.Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer. This is especially true if obesity occurs later in life, particularly after menopause.
- Be physically active.Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight, which, in turn, helps prevent breast cancer. For most healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly, plus strength training at least twice a week.
- Breast-feed.Breast-feeding might play a role in breast cancer prevention. The longer you breast-feed, the greater the protective effect.
- Limit dose and duration of hormone therapy.Combination hormone therapy for more than three to five years increases the risk of breast cancer. If you’re taking hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms, ask your doctor about other options. You might be able to manage your symptoms with nonhormonal therapies and medications. If you decide that the benefits of short-term hormone therapy outweigh the risks, use the lowest dose that works for you and continue to have your doctor monitor the length of time you are taking hormones.
- Avoid exposure to radiation and environmental pollution.Medical-imaging methods, such as computerized tomography, use high doses of radiation. While more studies are needed, some research suggests a link between breast cancer and radiation exposure. Reduce your exposure by having such tests only when absolutely necessary.
Can a healthy diet prevent breast cancer?
Eating a healthy diet might decrease your risk of some types of cancer, as well as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. For example, women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts might have a reduced risk of breast cancer. The Mediterranean diet focuses on mostly on plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. People who follow the Mediterranean diet choose healthy fats, like olive oil, over butter and fish instead of red meat.
Maintaining a healthy weight also is a key factor in breast cancer prevention.
Is there a link between birth control pills and breast cancer?
A number of older studies suggested that birth control pills — which often had higher estrogen doses prior to 1985 — slightly increased the risk of breast cancer, especially among younger women. In these studies, however, 10 years after discontinuing birth control pills women’s risk of breast cancer returned to the same level as that of women who never used oral contraceptives. Current evidence does not support an increase in breast cancer with today’s birth control pills.
What else can I do?
Be vigilant about breast cancer detection. If you notice any changes in your breasts, such as a new lump or skin changes, consult your doctor. Also, ask your doctor when to begin mammograms and other screenings based on your personal history.
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