These 5 Strategies Can Help Prevent Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Canadian women. Even though the five-year survival rate—87 per cent—has vastly improved over the past three decades, one in eight women can still expect to be diagnosed with breast cancer. (It’s about 100 times rarer in men.) Many risk factors are out of our control: we’re more likely to develop the disease the older we get, for instance, or the taller we are, although this link may have to do with factors such as childhood diet that contribute to height in adulthood. But current research is finding that we can, to some extent, shape our own odds.
“It’s incredibly important that people know they are not powerless,” says Susannah Brown, senior scientist at the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) in London, U.K. “There are steps they can take to help reduce their risk.” Earlier this year, WCRF partnered with the American Institute for Cancer Research to analyze more than 100 studies drawing on data from millions of women around the world. They found strong evidence of lowered breast cancer risk with simple lifestyle interventions. “It’s never too late to get healthier,” says Brown. “But the earlier you start, the better.”
Here are five ways to lower your risk for developing breast cancer.
1. Reduce Your Alcohol Intake
If you’re drinking for your health, think again. What you’re doing is raising your risk of seven cancers, including liver cancer. One drink a day increases your chances of developing breast cancer specifically by as much as 10 per cent. Two drinks and you double it by up to 20 per cent.
“A lot of women are shocked by that,” says Dr. Julian Kim, a radiation oncologist with CancerCare Manitoba in Winnipeg. “They drink a glass of wine to relax, and they think they’re getting away scot-free.” Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen, which, like other hormones, delivers messages that control cell division in the body. Increased lifetime estrogen exposure is associated with breast cancer. That’s why getting your first period before age 12 and reaching menopause after 55 are risk factors.
Plus, when we metabolize alcohol, it’s converted into acetaldehyde, a toxic by-product that can damage DNA and interfere with our ability to repair it. “There is no safe amount women can drink without increasing their risk of breast cancer,” says Brown. “However, the women who drink the most alcohol are at the greatest risk.”
When it comes to another common vice, smoking, the news is surprising. Although smoking-related illnesses cause about 100 deaths a day in Canada and may be implicated in some breast cancers, “smoking is not as strong a risk factor for breast cancer as it is for other cancers,” notes Shawn Chirrey, senior manager of health promotion for the Canadian Cancer Society in Toronto.
Bonus: What’s Your Addiction Risk?
2. Be Physically Active
Exercise lowers the risk of breast cancer, and being inactive increases it. The protective effects vary depending on whether or not you’re postmenopausal, whether the exercise is moderate or vigorous, and how much time you devote to physical activity.
“There’s a dose response. The more exercise you do, the greater the benefit,” says Dr. Christine Friedenreich, a Calgary-based cancer epidemiologist at Alberta Health Services. In all, about 17 per cent of breast cancer can be blamed on inactivity. Aim for at least 30 minutes of brisk exercise a day for prevention, but remember that any activity is better than none. “We know it also reduces the risk of at least 13 other cancers,” says Friedenreich, who is part of a project to quantify all modifiable risk factors for all cancers across the country.
It’s likely there are many ways physical activity is protective against breast cancer. Exercise decreases levels of estrogen in postmenopausal women and improves the immune system, and if you’re active outdoors, vitamin D exposure from the sun may even make a difference. However, further research is needed to understand the impact of different kinds of activity.
It can be challenging to incorporate exercise into our hectic lives, but Chirrey says that policy shifts in workplaces and municipalities are helpful. Employers can provide discount gym memberships or find ways to increase activity levels, and cities can build bike lanes. “Environments can encourage people to make physical activity part of their day,” he says.
Check out these 7 Silent Signs You Need to Move More!