These Everyday Habits Are Increasing Your Risk of Breast Cancer
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. Genetics, preexisting conditions, and weight can all affect your risk of developing the disease.
There are measures you can take to actively prevent increasing your risk of breast cancer. There are also habits you may be guilty of which might increase your risk and harm your body. The American Cancer Society offers science-backed actions you should be taking, and information on what habits you should avoid to reduce your breast cancer risk.
You’re drinking too much
Your breast cancer risk increases based on how much alcohol you consume. Women who have one alcoholic drink a day have a small increase in risk compared to non-drinkers. Women who have two to three drinks per day increase their risk by about 20%.
Alcohol may increase estrogen levels and other hormones that are associated with breast cancer. Alcohol damages DNA in the cells which may also increase risk. The ACS recommends that women who choose to drink have no more than one alcoholic beverage a day.
You use hormonal birth control methods
Most studies show that oral contraceptives (birth control pills) slightly increase your risk of developing breast cancer. Receiving the “birth control shot,” or Depo-Provera, can increase your risk during use. The injectable form of progesterone is administered once every three months as a form of birth control. There appears to be no increased risk in women five years after they stop getting the shots.
The ACS recommends using a non-hormonal intrauterine device instead. IUDs are a reversible form of birth control and aren’t linked to breast cancer. They may also lower your risk of cervical and endometrial cancer.
You’re not eating healthy
While the link between healthy eating and breast cancer is not clear, the ACS notes a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, poultry, fish, and low-fat dairy products has been linked with a lower risk of breast cancer in some studies. Furthermore, studies have found that breast cancer is less common in countries where the typical diet is low in total fat, low in polyunsaturated fat, and low in saturated fat (though researchers don’t know exactly why).
You don’t take these medications
Women who already have a bigger chance of developing breast cancer can take certain prescription medicines to help lower their risk. Tamoxifen and raloxifine are common medications used to ward off breast cancer by blocking the action of estrogen in breast tissue.
It’s important to weigh the benefits of taking medications with their potential side effects. Most experts say your risk should be above average before you consider taking the drugs. Determine your risk of breast cancer using the Gail model risk assessment tool.
You don’t have children
The ACS reports that women who don’t have children, or have their first child after 30 years of age have a slightly higher chance of getting breast cancer. Multiple pregnancies, pregnancies before 30 years, or a combination of the two reduces your risk. Women who give birth to their first child later in life are at an increased risk compared to the women who had their first child younger.
The younger you are, the sooner you get the protective effect of pregnancy. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation speculates the reason the risk relies on pregnancy age relates to breast cells, which grow rapidly during pregnancy. The chance of genetic damage to the cells rises with age, so having children younger decreases your risk of cell damage and as a result, breast cancer.
You’re a couch potato
Ongoing research indicates that physical activity helps to reduce your risk of breast cancer. Regular exercise appears to lower breast cancer risk by about 10 to 20% according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Exercise can help with weight control, lower estrogen levels, and boost the body’s immune system to ward off cancer.
The ACS recommends adults engage in 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week to lower overall cancer risk.
You don’t breast-feed
Data pooled from 47 studies on breast cancer found that overall, breast-feeding decreased a mother’s risk. Mothers who breast-fed for a lifetime total (the combined time of breast-feeding for all of their children) of one year were less likely to get the disease. The mothers who breast-fed for a lifetime total of two years received about twice the benefit.
Rachel King, a health education specialist in an MD Anderson cancer center, offers an explanation. Breast-feeding generally elicits hormonal changes that delays women’s menstrual periods, reducing their lifetime exposure to hormones like estrogen. Pregnancy and breast-feeding also sheds breast tissue. “This shedding can help remove cells with potential DNA damage, thus helping to reduce your chances of developing breast cancer,” King says.
You’ve used hormone therapy to aid menopause
Combined hormone therapy combines estrogen and progesterone and is generally used for women who still have a uterus (they haven’t had a hysterectomy). Combined HT increases women’s risk of breast cancer and can also increase the chances of dying from the disease.
As a little as two years of combined HT use can increase your risk and also increases the likelihood that you’ll find the cancer at a more advanced stage. The increased risk usually applies to only current or recent users of combined HT. The risk seems to return to normal within 5 years of discontinued treatment.
Recently, the ACS notes that more studies have found there might be a link between heavy smoking over a long time and breast cancer.
In some studies, the risk has been highest in certain groups, such as women who started smoking before they had their first child. The 2014 US Surgeon General’s report on smoking concluded that there is “suggestive but not sufficient” evidence that smoking increases the risk of breast cancer.
Researchers are also looking at whether secondhand smoke increases the risk of breast cancer. Both mainstream and secondhand smoke contain chemicals that, in high concentrations, cause breast cancer in rodents.
Screenings recommendations for average risk women
The ACS provides the following guide to help women catch breast cancer early:
These guidelines are for women at average risk for breast cancer. For screening purposes, a woman is considered to be at average risk if she doesn’t have a personal history of breast cancer, a strong family history of breast cancer, or a genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer (such as in a BRCA gene), and has not had chest radiation therapy before the age of 30. (See below for guidelines for women at high risk.)
Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.
All women should understand what to expect when getting a mammogram for breast cancer screening – what the test can and cannot do.
Additional reporting by Eric McWhinnie
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