Five changes you can make to lower your breast cancer risk

October 26, 2021 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
breast cancer risk

While there are some factors that affect breast cancer risk that you can’t change–genetic mutations, family history, age, having dense breast tissue, race, and ethnicity–there are proactive changes you can make that have been associated with lowering your risk. These lifestyle changes include:

  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight. Studies have found an association between being overweight or obese with an increased breast cancer risk, especially after menopause. In some studies, researchers found that being overweight or obese after menopause is associated with a 30 % to 60% increase in the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. One reason weight may impact the risk of breast cancer is that after menopause, most of the estrogen your body produces comes from fat tissue. The more fat tissue you have, the more estrogen your body makes. Similarly, being overweight has the potential to increase your insulin levels, which some studies have linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. Gaining 20 or more pounds as an adult has also been linked to increased risk.
  • Choose a healthier diet. Research suggests that eating a diet that includes foods rich in the carotenoids found in bright orange, green, red, and yellow fruits and vegetables, fiber, and fish with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and following either a plant-based or Mediterranean diet can lower your risk. In addition, choosing foods with a lower glycemic load can affect your risk of developing ER+/PR- (estrogen positive/ progesterone negative) breast cancer. Low glycemic load foods include legumes, nuts and seeds, most vegetables, and high fiber cereals.
  • Be more physically active. A number of studies have found an association between regular physical activity and a lower risk of breast cancer, even for post-menopausal women who have a family history of the disease. Taking part in moderate physical activity for at least 150 minutes a week or vigorous activity for 60 to 75 minutes a week reduced body fat, which in turn reduces the amount of estrogen the body produces from fat tissue. Activity also lowers insulin resistance, helping keep your blood sugar levels lower. Studies suggest that being less sedentary can have a positive impact on your risk of breast cancer, because sedentary behavior increases your risk of weight gain. You can reduce the amount of time you’re sitting by taking movement breaks during the workday and limiting long periods of screen time.
  • If you smoke, quit now. Some studies have linked smoking and second-hand smoke exposure, especially in childhood, to a modest increase in breast cancer risk, especially for women with a family history of breast cancer. Quitting smoking and protecting yourself and your children from second-hand smoke offers a wide range of other health benefits as well, including lower risk of lung cancer and respiratory diseases.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol. The findings of some research has associated any level of alcohol consumption with a modest increase in the risk of developing hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit the amount you drink. Women who drink three servings of alcohol per day were found in some studies to have a 15% higher risk than women who did not drink.

An added benefit of adopting these lifestyle changes—a decreased risk of other serious conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and other types of cancer. A health advisor can connect you with resources and specialists who can help you build and stick with your lifestyle modification plan.

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