Can You Prevent Breast Cancer?

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Those three words hold so much power. They’re life-altering in too many ways to measure. They’re words that every women hopes they’ll never have to hear.

And as a survivor who has heard those words, I’d like to be able to say that you’ll never, ever have to hear them.

But there’s no sure way to do that.

What I can do is tell you ways to reduce your risk and be aware enough (or in some cases, lucky enough) that if you do get diagnosed with breast cancer, it will be found at an early stage, where it’s typically more treatable.

While there are many factors that influence your breast cancer risk, there are also factors that are unknown or out of your control. But it’s worthwhile to know the things that might be alterable a being proactive and taking charge of your health might be a comfort in and of itself, don’t you think?

Keep a healthy weight. 

Those extra pounds boost your risk. Postmenopausal women who are overweight have a higher risk than those who are normal weight. The more fat cells a woman has after menopause, the higher her blood levels of estrogen”which travels through the blood as estradiol”will be. Obese women have about three times the circulating levels of estradiol compared to lean women. Extra pounds can also increase the risk of recurrence in women who have already had breast cancer. Here’s a way to assess your weight from breastcancer.org.

Curb your alcohol.

 The more you drink, the higher your risk. The CDC advises limiting yourself to no more than one alcoholic drink per day.

Move your body.

Exercise definitely counts: women who are physically active have a lower risk than women who are the least physically active”up to 25 percent lower. And it also matters for women who have already been diagnosed: there’s growing evidence that physically active women have a lower risk of dying of breast cancer. Try to get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each day.

Limit CT scans where possible. 

Also A known as CAT scans, they can expose you to way too much ionizing radiation. How? A CT scan of the abdomen exposes the body to 400 times more radiation than does an ordinary chest X-ray.

Choose your foods wisely.

A Foods that have been linked in some studies with a lower risk of breast cancer include vegetables, fruit, poultry, fish and low-fat dairy.

Get screened. 

When to screen? It can get confusing, since not everyone agrees on mammogram guidelines (which, as you’re probably aware, are always changing). The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women begin screening at age 50 (and repeat the test every two years), while the American Cancer Society and other organizations recommend screening at age 40 (and repeat the test annually).  And screening might be recommended even earlier if you’re at high risk. That’s why you and your doctor need to talk and decide together what’s best for you. Here’s a helpful fact sheet A on mammograms from the National Cancer Institute.

Ironically, my birthday falls in the same month as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. So, I get to make as many wishes as I want!

My wish for you: May you never have to face a diagnosis of breast cancer. Another wish: If you do get diagnosed, may it be early and treatable. My last wish: That you do everything you can to ensure your breast health.

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.

Breast cancer. Just reading those words can make many women worry. And that’s natural.

Nearly everyone knows someone touched by the disease.

But there is a lot of good news about breast cancer these days. Treatments keep getting better, and we know more than ever about ways to prevent the disease. These eight simple steps can help lower the risk of breast cancer. Not every one applies to every woman, but together they can have a big impact.

1. Keep Weight in Check

It’s easy to tune out because it gets said so often, but maintaining a healthy weight is an important goal for everyone. Being overweight can increase the risk of many different cancers, including breast cancer, especially after menopause.

2. Be Physically Active

Exercise is as close to a silver bullet for good health as there is, and women who are physically active for at least 30 minutes a day have a lower risk of breast cancer. Regular exercise is also one of the best ways to help keep weight in check.

3. Eat Your Fruits & Vegetables – and Avoid Too Much Alcohol

A healthy diet can help lower the risk of breast cancer.  Try to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and keep alcohol at moderate levels or lower (a drink a day or under).  While moderate drinking can be good for the heart in older adults, even low levels of intake can increase the risk of breast cancer.  If you don’t drink, don’t feel you need to start. If you drink moderately, there’s likely no reason to stop. But, if you drink more, you should cut down or quit.

4. Don’t Smoke

Smokers and non-smokers alike know how unhealthy smoking is.  On top of lowering quality of life and increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and at least 15 cancers – including breast cancer – it also causes smelly breath, bad teeth, and wrinkles. Now that’s motivation to stay smoke-free or work to get smoke-free.

5. Breastfeed, If Possible

Breastfeeding for a total of one year or more (combined for all children) lowers the risk of breast cancer. It also has great health benefits for the child.

6. Avoid Birth Control Pills, Particularly After Age 35 or If You Smoke

Birth control pills have both risks and benefits. The younger a woman is, the lower the risks are. While women are taking birth control pills, they have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. This risk goes away quickly, though, after stopping the pill. The risk of stroke and heart attack is also increased while on the pill – particularly if a woman smokes. However, long-term use can also have important benefits, like lowering the risk of ovarian cancer, colon cancer and uterine cancer – not to mention unwanted pregnancy – so there’s also a lot in its favor. If you’re very concerned about breast cancer, avoiding birth control pills is one option to lower risk.

7. Avoid Post-Menopausal Hormones

Post-menopausal hormones shouldn’t be taken long term to prevent chronic diseases, like osteoporosis and heart disease. Studies show they have a mixed effect on health, increasing the risk of some diseases and lowering the risk of others, and both estrogenonly hormones and estrogen-plus-progestin hormones increase the risk of breast cancer. If women do take post-menopausal hormones, it should be for the shortest time possible. The best person to talk to about the risks and benefits of post-menopausal hormones is your doctor.

8. Tamoxifen and Raloxifene for Women at High Risk

Although not commonly thought of as a “healthy behavior,” taking the prescription drugs tamoxifen and raloxifene can significantly lower the risk of  breast cancer in woman at high risk of the disease. Approved by the FDA for breast cancer prevention, these powerful drugs can have side effects, so hey aren’t right for everyone. If you think you’re at high risk, talk to your doctor to see if tamoxifen or raloxifene may be right for you. Find Out Your Family History Women with a strong family history of cancer can take special steps to protect themselves, so it’s important for women to know their family history. You may be at high risk of breast cancer if you have a mother or sister who developed breast or ovarian cancer (especially at an early age) or if you have multiple

family members (including males) who developed breast, ovarian or prostate cancer. A doctor or genetic counselor can help you understand your family history of the disease.

Don’t Forget Screening

Despite some controversy, studies show that breast cancer screening with mammography saves lives. It doesn’t help prevent cancer, but it can help find cancer early when it’s most treatable.  For most women, regular mammograms can begin at age 40, but specific recommendations vary by age and risk.

If you are age 40 – 44:

You can choose to begin yearly mammograms.  It is important to talk to a doctor about the risk and benefits of mammograms at these ages.

If you are age 45 – 54:

Mammograms are recommended every year.

If you are age 55 or over:

Mammograms are recommended every other year. You can choose to continue to have them every year.

Clinical breast exams and self-exams are not recommended. But you should be familiar with your breasts and tell a health care provider right away if you notice any changes in how your breasts look or feel.

Other Important Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

Unfortunately, there are also a number of important breast cancer risk factors that women have no control over. Knowing which ones apply to you can help you understand your risk and do what you can to lower it. If you feel you’re at high risk, talk to a doctor or other health professional. These can increase a woman’s breast cancer risk:

  • Older age, especially 60 years or over
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • First menstrual period (menarche) before age 12
  • Menopause at age 55 or over
  • First childbirth after age 35
  • No children
  • Tall height (5’8” or taller)
  • Dense breasts
  • History of benign breast disease (like atypical hyperplasia

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