06 Oct 2016
3 Ways to Reduce Your Breast Cancer Risk
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is a topic that is very close to my heart as many members of my family have been touched by this disease including my mother and sister. I try really hard not to think about it, but I am acutely aware that my daughter and I are, at this point, are the only female members of my family who have NOT had breast or ovarian cancer.
Breast cancer is scary business and unfortunately, much of what increases your risk is completely out of your bucket of control. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there are things you can do to minimize the chances that cancer will be a part of your life.
Age is the single-most important risk factor for breast cancer. The chances of developing the disease increase with age. About 95% of women diagnosed with breast cancer each year are over 40, and about half are over 61.
Your risk is also greater if an immediate family member (mother, sister, or daughter) has had breast cancer, particularly if it was at an early age. Women who have had a breast biopsy (removal of breast tissue) that shows certain types of benign disease, like atypical hyperplasia, are more likely to get breast cancer.
Other risk factors include:
- Having cancer in one breast (may recur or develop in other)
- Having dense breasts (you should be told this by your radiologist)
- Having a history of ovarian, uterine, or colon cancer
- Having a genetic abnormality in breast cancer genes BRCA1 or BRCA2
- Late menopause (after age 55)
- Starting periods early in life (before age 12)
- Having your first child after age 30
- Never having children
- Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) using a synthetic progestin (not PROGESTERONE)
How to manage what’s in your control
For the majority of risk factors, there’s not a lot you can do. If age is the biggest risk, I’ll take my chances because the alternative (not getting older) isn’t attractive to me! Similarly, you can’t do much about dense breast tissue, the age at which you have children or the fact that you may be having periods past age 55.
BUT, lifestyle does play a role in risk. Let’s take a look at what you CAN control.
Lose the Booze
Consumption of alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Compared with non-drinkers, women who consume 1 alcoholic drink a day have a very small increase in risk. Those who have 2 to 5 drinks daily have about 1½ times the risk of women who don’t drink alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption is also known to increase the risk of developing several other cancers. The American Cancer Society recommends that women have no more than 1 alcoholic drink a day.
Manage Your Weight
Being overweight or obese after menopause increases breast cancer risk. Before menopause your ovaries produce most of your estrogen, and fat tissue produces a small amount of estrogen. After menopause (when the ovaries stop making estrogen), most of a woman’s estrogen comes from fat tissue.
Having more fat tissue after menopause can increase your chance of getting breast cancer by raising estrogen levels. Also, women who are overweight tend to have higher blood insulin levels. Higher insulin levels have also been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer.
The connection between weight and breast cancer risk is complex though. For example, risk appears to be increased for women who gained weight as an adult but may not be increased among those who have been overweight since childhood. Also, excess fat in the waist area may affect risk more than the same amount of fat in the hips and thighs. Researchers believe that fat cells in various parts of the body have subtle differences that may explain this.
Hormone imbalances can make losing weight difficult during perimenopause and menopause. Getting your hormones to play nicely with each other can make your weight loss efforts more effective (and keep estrogen dominance under control). You can read more about that here.
Ramp up your Activity Level
Evidence is growing that physical activity reduces breast cancer risk. The biggest question is how much exercise is needed. In one study from the Women’s Health Initiative, as little as 1¼ to 2½ hours per week of brisk walking reduced a woman’s risk by 18%. Walking 10 hours a week reduced the risk a little more.
Current recommendations suggest that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these), preferably spread throughout the week.
Having risk factors for breast cancer doesn’t mean you’ll develop the disease any more than NOT having them means you won’t. Let the things you can’t control go and live your life. But while you’re living that life, take good care of yourself. The formula for good self-care is really very simple. Eat well, move your body, sleep, avoid things you know can be toxic (including people).
And get your mammograms. There’s controversy about when to do that, but my personal opinion is that you should start at age 40. Some experts recommend starting at age 50, but I’m very biased toward 40. My sister developed breast cancer at age 40. If she’d followed the recommendations to wait until age 50, she might not be here. Talk to your healthcare provider about your risk and when to start screening.
Dr. Anna Garrett is a menopause expert and Doctor of Pharmacy. She helps women who are struggling with symptoms of perimenopause and menopause find natural hormone balancing solutions so they can rock their mojo through midlife and beyond. Her clients would tell you that her real gift is helping them reclaim parts of themselves they thought were gone forever.
Find out more about working with her at https://www.drannagarrett.com/work-with-me/.