Beat the Odds: 8 Ways to Reduce Your Breast Cancer Risk
Approximately one in eight women around the world will be diagnosed with breast cancer,” says Mili Arora, MD, an oncologist at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Despite this statistic, the overall incidence of breast cancer is decreasing—both in part due to better screening as well as better therapies for early stage disease.”
So what’s your risk? And is there anything you can do to lower your chances of being diagnosed? With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, local doctors shared eight ways for you to take action now.
1 Ask about your family history.
In January 2018, there were 3.1 million women in the U.S. with a family history of breast cancer. It’s the most common cancer in women, second only to skin cancer, says Rashmi Ramasubbaiah, MD, an oncologist associated with Marshall Medical Center. “Talk to your family members and [have an open dialogue] about cancer,” she suggests. “Parents, siblings, and children are first-degree relatives; aunts, uncles, grandparents, and grandkids are second-degree relatives. Make a family tree. Ask specifically about cancers of breast, ovaries, prostate, stomach, thyroid, colon, sarcoma, uterus, and melanoma of the skin.”
2 Know your body.
The frequency of performing self-breast exams is somewhat controversial, Dr. Arora says. “That being said, the most important thing is that you do them! It should be a reminder for you to undergo clinical breast exams with your primary care provider.” Daniel Herron, MD, a diagnostic radiology specialist with Mercy Imaging Centers, wants you to recognize when your breasts change. “Instead of encouraging women to regularly examine their own breasts, it’s recommended that women become more aware of the normal appearance and feel of them. If a woman notices a mass, discharge from one of her nipples, dimpling or puckering of the skin, pulling in of the nipple, an area of redness, or new pain in part of a breast, she should notify her health care provider,” he says.
3 Get check-ups.
For women of average risk (meaning no family history of breast or ovarian cancer), annual screening mammograms are recommended for women at 40 years old, and a clinical breast exam and general awareness of breast cancer is recommended for women between 25-40 years old, Dr. Ramasubbaiah says. Kristie Bobolis, MD, medical director of Sutter Roseville Medical Center’s breast cancer program, says if there’s a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, you should talk to your doctor about a more comprehensive risk assessment to see if you qualify for enhanced breast screening, including breast MRI scans, starting even younger than age 40.
4 Don’t ignore it if you feel a lump.
Most of the time, breast lumps tend to be benign—only 15 percent are potentially cancerous—Dr. Ramasubbaiah says. If it persists and doesn’t go away within one week, get it checked. “It doesn't matter how old you are. If you feel a breast lump, please get it evaluated; additionally, look for change in contour of the breast, with new breast dimpling, nipple discharge, nipple retraction, redness of breast, or a lump under the armpit.”
5 Be aware of when the odds change.
Dr. Herron says the reason we recommend women begin testing for breast cancer at age 40 is because a woman in her 30s has a 1 in 227 chance of getting cancer. That changes to 1 in 68 in her 40s. The risk then gradually increases, with women in their 70s having a 1 in 26 chance of getting breast cancer.
6 Make healthy choices whenever possible.
“We’re learning that one’s lifestyle does indeed have a connection to breast cancer,” says Ernie Bodai, MD, director of the Breast Cancer Survivorship Institute at Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento. “Some of the more significant risk factors include being obese, eating unhealthily, and having a sedentary lifestyle.” The best way to minimize your risk is to live a healthy lifestyle, which consists of a nutritious diet. Dr. Bodai recommends minimizing your intake of meat and dairy products and concentrating more on whole food, plant-based diets. “These healthier diets include fresh fruits and vegetables, avoiding processed foods as much as possible, getting your protein from beans and legumes, and having a small amount of nuts and seeds.”
7 Maintain an active lifestyle.
Exercise and sleep are both important for your health, which can be “as simple as walking 30 minutes a day for five days a week,” Dr. Bodai says. “We need to get adequate sleep, because being well-rested decreases stress, and stress is another promoter of inflammation and malignancy.” He also advises against tobacco use and suggests minimizing alcohol consumption.
8 If it’s an option, breastfeed your baby.
Dr. Herron confirms that breastfeeding lowers your risk of breast cancer. “The longer, the better,” he says. “Women breastfeeding a lifetime total of more than two years have the most benefit. It will also lower your risk of diabetes and ovarian cancer.”