Did you know that the average woman has a 13% lifetime risk of breast cancer? That means that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer at some point, and while almost everyone knows someone who has had breast cancer, it’s hard to face such stark statistics.
The 1 in 8 statistic is the baseline risk, however, and it’s not universal or unchangeable. Rather, for those who are already in an average risk category – specifically those who don’t have a genetic mutation or family history that substantially increases the likelihood of developing breast cancer – developing healthy habits can do a lot to reduce that risk.
If you’re committed to addressing common risk factors for breast cancer in your day-to-day life, you can get started today by focusing on these six lifestyle factors. While we can’t control everything that contributes to cancer risk, it’s worth working towards better health habits wherever possible.
Watch Your Weight
Being overweight is associated with many health risks, including an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and, importantly, many kinds of cancer. Regarding breast cancer, though, added weight is particularly dangerous because of the established link between insulin levels, estrogen, and breast cancer risk. With worsening insulin resistance comes changes to how the body uses estrogen that make it more likely you’ll develop breast cancer, but there’s also a simple way to mitigate this risk: lose weight.
By maintaining a healthy weight, you can minimize insulin resistance and simultaneously reduce your risk of breast cancer. Though we know from research into weight loss more generally that losing weight and maintaining a lower body mass is challenging, the key for those who want to reduce their risk of breast cancer is to focus on making sustainable changes. Skip the crash diets and gimmicks and focus on eating more fruits and vegetables and getting more exercise. You can also slowly change your snack choices to healthier options, switch to leaner meets, and increase the amount of fiber in your diet – but don’t try to do everything at once.
Abstain From Alcohol
It’s natural to drink alcohol from time to time, whether that’s having a glass of wine with a nice dinner or a beer while at a party with friends. Unfortunately, alcohol consumption is linked to an increase in breast cancer risk. By minimizing alcohol intake, either by eliminating it entirely or reducing it to one or fewer drinks per day, you can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.
The good thing about alcohol is that it isn’t essential, so while cutting it out may not be fun or your preference, it’s an achievable goal – and there’s an increasing market for non-alcoholic beverages if you want to feel festive without the booze. It’s easier than ever to order a mocktail at a bar or even get custom blends shipped to your door.
Controlling for major risk factors like alcohol consumption and weight can help decrease your risk of breast cancer, but it’s simultaneously important to take steps that will increase your odds of survival if you do develop it. The best way to accomplish that is by scheduling regular mammograms starting at age 40.
If you’re not familiar with the procedure, a mammogram is a noninvasive test that uses low-dose x-rays to look for masses in the breast tissue, and the main advantage of the procedure is that it can often catch very small abnormalities. This means your doctor may be able to find breast cancer, or even clusters of pre-cancerous cells, well before you have noticeable symptoms.
Breast(fed) Is Best
Just as there is a general medical consensus that breastfeeding offers infants some valuable health benefits, there is also evidence that breastfeeding can reduce breast cancer risk, as well as offering some protection against ovarian cancer. Though it’s unclear exactly why this is – it also decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes – but the hypothesis is that breastfeeding can delay the return of a woman’s menstrual cycle, thereby lowering lifetime estrogen exposure. Since greater estrogen exposure is linked to a greater risk of breast cancer, breastfeeding may offer a moderate amount of protection.
Don’t Mask Menopause
In the same vein that breastfeeding reduces lifetime breast cancer risk by decreasing estrogen exposure, taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to address some of the unpleasant symptoms of menopause can increase the risk of breast cancer. That’s because, not only does HRT increase hormone exposure, but the combination of estrogen and progesterone can cause increased breast density, which has historically been linked to a greater risk of breast cancer.
The good news is that after three years of stopping HRT, women’s hormone levels normalize, reaching the same baseline as that of women who have never taken HRT, but the exposure itself can’t be undone. Additionally, if your doctor does recommend HRT for managing menopause symptoms, they should reevaluate its use and dosage every three to six months and stop its use as soon as appropriate.
Lower The Lights
As we’ve all become more tech obsessed, we’ve learned about the impact of excessive light exposure on health, particularly during the later hours of the day when our bodies should be preparing for bed. Ordinarily, though, such research is largely concerned with sleep disruption, but new research has found that excessive light exposure may also increase breast cancer risk. Though it’s unclear how melatonin interacts with other chemical processes in the body, but dimming the lights, turning off technology, and wearing a sleep mask can all help protect you.
Control What You Can
Despite how common breast cancer is, only 5-10% of cases seem to be genetic – and even those rely on some environmental inputs. On the other hand, there are also many risk factors, like environmental pollution and toxins, that you can’t control. All you can do is to take ownership over those lifestyle aspects – weight, exercise, nutrition – that are within your control. In combination with regular screenings, you’ll have not only minimized your risk but also ensured your doctors can find any signs of cancer before it can spread.