Take Control of Your Breast Cancer Risk

breast cancer awareness women joining hands

One out of every eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, making breast cancer the most common cancer in women after skin cancer. Every year, hundreds of thousands of women are diagnosed with this dangerous disease, and even more women battle bravely against it.

Though we haven’t found a silver bullet to cure breast cancer yet, decades of research have given us insight into how we can better prevent, catch and treat it. Scientists have been able to identify multiple risk factors for developing breast cancer, and while some of them can’t be changed, many of them can be. So even if you have risk factors for breast cancer, don’t feel powerless – here are some things recent research suggests you can do to reduce your risk.

Drink Less Alcohol: Watch how much you drink. While women who drink an average of one drink a day have only a slight increase in risk compared to non-drinkers, women who average 2 to 5 drinks a day are about 1.5 times as likely to get breast cancer.

Take a Walk: Recent studies show that even a small amount of physical activity can significantly lower breast cancer risk. A Women’s Health Initiative study showed that as little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours a week of brisk walking could reduce breast cancer risk by up to 18%. In another study released this month, women who participated in strenuous exercise for at least an hour a day had an even greater benefit, reducing risk by 25%. Plus, being overweight or obese has been linked to breast cancer, so anything you can do to lose weight will be good for your breast health.

Eat the Right Foods: Many studies have tried to sort out which foods and diets can help lower breast cancer risk. While overall results are inconclusive, some studies suggest that certain foods might help:

  • A recent Harvard study reported that carotenoids found in yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables such as carrots, red peppers and sweet potatoes may lower breast cancer risk.
  • A diet high in vegetables and low in carbohydrates and red meats has been linked to a significantly reduced risk of developing estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer.
  • A study in mice showed that eating walnuts could reduce breast cancer risk, possibly due to anti-inflammatory properties of the nut.
  • Eating peanut butter during childhood was linked to a 39% lower risk of benign breast disease (which can be a risk factor for breast cancer) in a recent study.

Learn more about cancer-preventing foods.

Get Your Vitamin D: Getting enough Vitamin D has many health benefits, and reducing breast cancer risk may be among them. While the link between vitamin D and breast cancer is still being investigated, some research has shown that women with low levels of this important vitamin may be at a much higher risk of breast cancer. You can get your daily dose of vitamin D by spending 10 to 15 minutes outside in the sun a day (without sunscreen is best, but if you burn easily try getting your vitamin D from another source). You can also eat vitamin D-rich foods like milk, cereal, cod, tuna, shrimp and salmon or take a vitamin supplement.

Control Your Hormones: Exposure to estrogen over time may contribute to breast cancer development, which is why hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women has been linked to increased cancer risk and should ideally be limited to no more than a few years. Breastfeeding may also help, possibly by altering hormone levels. A recent study showed that women who breastfed their babies for at least six months were diagnosed on average 10 years later than women who didn’t.

But don’t forget, nothing can help reduce your risk of dying from breast cancer like early detection. Being familiar with the normal appearance and feel of your breasts can help you know when something is wrong. And though guidelines for how often women need mammograms is controversial, they can be lifesaving. At the very least, all women ages 50 to 74 should get one every two years, but women under 50 may benefit from them as well. Talk to your doctor about how often you should be screened.