5 Things You Can Do to Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer

Whether you or a loved one have battled the disease or not, October—Breast Cancer Awareness Month—is a time when many men and women give a lot of thought to this common form of cancer.

There are several modifiable factors that increase one’s risk of developing breast cancer. This means we can act today to make changes that reduce our risk.

A lot of women walk away from these contemplations with a fatalistic view of the disease: If 12% of women are diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their lives, then I’m simply a sitting duck—I’m in danger and void of protection. Thankfully, this isn’t an accurate perception!

While it is true that some women and men develop breast cancer despite having few risk factors, researchers have found that there are several modifiable risk factors that significantly increase one’s risk of developing the disease. Modifiable, of course, means that we can make changes that reduce our risk. In fact, we can take action today to eliminate or minimize several of them.

Actions that reduce your risk of breast cancer

Get regular exercise

Women of all ages who exercise regularly have lower rates of breast cancer than women who are sedentary. This may be because exercise helps women maintain a healthy weight (see the discussion below). However, some studies have shown that regular physical exercise throughout a woman’s life reduces her risk regardless of her weight (i.e., even overweight and obese women who are active have lower rates of breast cancer).

Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight or obese increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer. This risk is particularly high during the postmenopausal years. Researchers believe this is because having more fat tissue tends to increase a woman’s level of estrogen, which increases breast cancer risk.

Stop or minimize your consumption of alcohol

Women who consume ¾ to 1 drink per day have 1.09 times the risk of developing breast cancer compared to women who do not drink and women who consume 2 to 5 drinks per day have 1.41 times the risk of developing breast cancer.

Have babies

Though breast cancer risk reduction should not be your motivation for bearing children, the fact remains that women who carry a pregnancy to term in early life (before age 20) and women who bear multiple children have decreased lifetime risk of breast cancer compared to women who have not birthed children. In fact, a woman who has had 5 full-term pregnancies is about 50% less likely to develop breast cancer than a woman who has had none.

Breastfeed

Researchers have known for a long time that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Recently, though, they discovered that duration is key—a woman experiences a 4.3% relative risk reduction for every 12 months she breastfeeds.

Actions that don’t reduce your risk of breast cancer

Despite the rumors and urban legends that circulate in emails and on social media, researchers have found that using antiperspirant, having an abortion, wearing underwire bras, and having breast implants do not increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Thus, avoiding these actions won’t reduce your risk. That’s not to say that I support abortion or breast augmentation—I’m simply passing along the research findings.

Final thoughts

Please note that I’ve only addressed modifiable risk factors for breast cancer in women. Researchers have studied and published much less about risk factors in men.

It’s inevitable that someone will feel bad after reading a post like this. Perhaps it is because you did everything “right” (e.g., exercised, avoided alcohol, breastfed your kids), yet still developed breast cancer. Perhaps it is because you can’t change one of these risk factors that are generally considered to be modifiable (e.g., you consumed lots of alcohol in your younger years, you are unable to bear children). Whatever the reason, rest assured that the purpose of this post is not to make you feel bad, but to provide information that can help us all make informed decisions about our lifestyles. Use what is applicable to you and let go of the rest.

For more information on breast cancer risk factors, visit my sources: American Academy of Family Physicians, World Health Organization, and UCSF Medical Center.

Were you aware of these breast cancer risk factors? As you are busy with your family, church, work, etc., how do you make time to care for your own health?

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Comments

  1. I heard somewhere that your risk of cancer (may have been ovarian cancer) is lower if you bear children but goes back up if you use birth control… is that scientifically founded?

    • Great question, Jenny! The link between oral contraceptives and breast cancer is not clear. Most of the evidence (i.e., research findings) shows that women who take birth control pills have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer while they take them and in the years immediately following their use of them. After 10 years have passed, this risk seems to disappear. However, there are some studies that show no increased risk and other studies that indicate risk is only associated with certain types of oral contraceptives. Confusing, right? The strongest evidence points towards the former…that birth control pills cause a slight increase in risk, but this tends to fade once a woman stops taking them. You can read more here.
      As far as ovarian cancer is concerned, birth control pills appear to decrease a woman’s risk (having babies decreases this risk, too).

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