If you are concerned about your breast health, you might be wondering if there are ways to lower the risk of breast cancer? While one cannot do much about a few risk factors such as being a female or getting older, it is still possible to reduce the risk by adopting some healthy lifestyle habits.
Factors that can mitigate the risk of breast cancer
Limiting alcohol intake –Studies have established that alcohol intake leads to an increase in the level of estrogen and other hormones that are linked to hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. In addition, alcohol may also increase the breast cancer risk by damaging DNA in cells. Women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer in comparison to women who don’t drink at all. 1
Watching your weight to maintain optimal BMI – Women who have a body mass index of more than 25 are more susceptible to breast cancer relative to women who are at a healthy weight. 2 This is because a higher BMI is associated with a higher production of estrogen especially in the postmenopausal women. Estrogen plays a key role in regulating cardiovascular effects, bone density, and memory. The synthesis of estrogen takes mainly in the corpus luteum and ovarian follicles in the premenopausal women. However, in postmenopausal women, the primary source of estrogen synthesis in the body is the adipose tissue which has a significant impact on the whole-body steroid metabolism. Therefore, as the BMI increases in postmenopausal women, the fat mass or the adipose tissue increases, consequently leading to an elevated level of estrogen. 3
If you are already at a healthy weight, maintain it. In case you need to lose weight, seek support to alter your diet and physical activity in a way that the weight loss strategy is sustainable.
Being physically active – Several studies have published that physical activity greatly reduces the risk of breast cancer. Physical activity reduces this risk in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. In addition, women who increase their physical activity post-menopause have a lower risk in comparison to women who do not. Women who engage in 150 min per week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity have a lower risk of breast cancer. It is important to prioritize exercise in one’s routine no matter how busy the schedule is.4
Breastfeeding for as long as possible – Many experts have suggested that women should breastfeed for as long as possible as it greatly reduces the risk of breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer is inversely related to the length of breastfeeding.5 Breast cancer risk reduces while breastfeeding since women get fewer menstrual cycles resulting in lower estrogen levels. In addition, women tend to consume nutritious food and limit alcohol intake.
Consulting your doctor regularly if you are on birth control pills – Studies have published that prolonged use of estrogen-containing birth control pills is linked with an increased risk of breast cancer. However, the progestin-only contemporary pills don’t offer any such risk, hence they are safe. However, progestin-only pills might not be safe for women who already have breast cancer or liver disorders. Therefore, it is best to discuss with your doctor to assess the benefit to risk ratio. 6
Prioritizing self-examination as it could lead to early detection — While eating healthy and staying at a healthy weight is important, it is equally important to be self-aware.
Women must understand the importance of regular breast self-exams as they can help detect any abnormalities which could be indicative of an infection or breast cancer-like changes in skin color, lumps, etc. If detected early, the chances of survival from breast cancer are much better.
Self-exams are important for breast health. However, they cannot replace the screening tests (such as mammograms) recommended by doctors. Hence, women who are 40 and even younger must see their primary care provider and/or gynecologist regularly to schedule clinical examinations as well. Even though breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help detect breast cancer at an earlier stage when it is still easier to manage. Therefore, along with performing regular self-breast exams, women must speak to their healthcare providers to understand which breast cancer screening tests are right for them, and when they should have them. 7, 8