You can’t guarantee prevention, but you *can* reduce your risk.
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer (second to skin cancer) affecting women in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. It makes sense, then, that women may worry about their own breast cancer risk and if they can be doing anything to prevent this disease.
The short answer: Yes, there are lifestyle changes that can *lower* your risk of breast cancer, but there is no silver bullet to guarantee you will avoid cancer.
“Unfortunately, cancer does not follow the rules,” says Brenda Panzera, MD, oncologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Lenox Hill Hospital. “Although we know that there are many ways to potentially minimize the risk of breast cancer, many women develop breast cancer despite having thought they had done everything right.”
That does not mean there is no point in making healthy lifestyle changes. For starters, a healthy lifestyle can make a difference—it’s just not a guarantee. Second of all, the same lifestyle changes that could minimize your risk of breast cancer can also help ward off chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, which are deeply attached to your lifestyle.
How to Minimize Your Risk
Here are three key lifestyle changes that can minimize your risk of breast cancer, according to Dr. Panzera:
Exercise: The minimum recommendation is to engage in moderate exercise for at least 150 minutes per week. It’s not fully clear why people who exercise regularly have lower rates of cancer, but there are some theories why exercising helps—by reducing inflammation, improving immune function, and helping to manage weight.
Eat a healthy diet: While there’s no single diet that is linked to a cancer-free life, it’s recommended to follow a diet rich in whole foods, particularly whole grains, beans and other lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. A healthy diet helps control inflammation in the body, as well as helping to maintain a healthy weight. (And BTW, it’s a myth that soy causes breast cancer. In fact, soy products may lower breast cancer risk.)
Limit alcohol: Excess alcohol consumption is one of the biggest lifestyle risk factors for breast cancer. One reason is because alcohol can increase estrogen levels in a woman’s body, which raises the risk of breast cancer. “We know that drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per day over the course of a week could potentially increase the risk,” says Dr. Panzera.
You’ve probably heard rumors that wearing bras or deodorant can affect your breast cancer risk—but these aren’t supported by evidence. Here are more things that probably don’t cause breast cancer.
Remember, there are many benefits of a healthy lifestyle that go beyond your breast cancer risk, but keep in mind: You can control your lifestyle, but you can’t always control whether or not you’ll develop breast cancer (or any other cancer, for that matter).
“There are many people who feel they have done everything right. They have exercised, they've eaten healthy, they don't drink, they live the healthiest lifestyle they possibly could, and develop breast cancer,” says Dr. Panzera. “It is never a patient's fault.”
Dr. Panzera is a clinical instructor in hematology and oncology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and attending physician at Mount Sinai and Lenox Hill Hospitals.
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Although we know that there are many ways
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to potentially minimize the risk of breast cancer,
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many women develop breast cancer despite having thought
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they had done everything right.
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Unfortunately, cancer does not follow the rules,
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and there are many things not known about cancer
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that we don't have control over.
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So for an average-risk patient who wants to minimize
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their risk of developing breast cancer,
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as best as they can, I would recommend exercising
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at least 150 minutes per week, moderate exercise.
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It doesn't have to be incredibly vigorous.
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Healthy eating, in terms of minimizing weight gain,
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maintaining appropriate BMI, body mass index,
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and being conscious of the amount of alcohol that's being consumed.
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We know that drinking more than one alcoholic beverage
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per day over the course of a week
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could potentially increase the risk,
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so minimizing that as best as one could.
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There are many people who feel they have done everything right.
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They have exercised, they've eaten healthy, they don't drink,
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they live the healthiest lifestyle they possibly could,
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and develop breast cancer,
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and I think it's important to know that
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despite all the things that we have control over,
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we don't always have control over whether or not breast cancer develops.
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It is never a patient's fault.
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Cancer does not follow the rules.
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Alcohol. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute, 2015. (Accessed on January 23, 2020 at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol.)
Breast cancer prevention (PDQR) - patient version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute, 2019. (Accessed on January 23, 2020 at https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/patient/breast-prevention-pdq.)
Diet. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute, 2015. (Accessed on January 23, 2020 at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet.)
Does regular exercise reduce cancer risk? Cambridge, MA: Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, 2016. (Accessed on January 23, 2020 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/exercise-and-fitness/does-regular-exercise-reduce-cancer-risk.)
Get moving to help reduce your risk of breast cancer. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2018. (Accessed on January 23, 2020 at https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/get-moving-to-help-reduce-your-risk-of-breast-cancer.html.)