Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer to affect women, but fortunately, there are many ways to reduce the risk.
Most people—men can develop the disease, too—who develop breast cancer don’t have the disease in their family, according to BreastCancer.org. Up to 10% of cases are linked to gene mutations like BRCA 1 and 2, but not all people with these genes get sick. This makes lifestyle modifications important when working to reduce risk, regardless of your family history or genetic makeup.
1. Eat a Mediterranean diet
Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil reduces the risk of breast cancer. This diet focuses on fresh, whole foods including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
To adopt this diet, aim to eat at least five servings per day of vegetables, along with moderate amounts of healthy fats like those found in olives, avocados, and nuts. Although fish and eggs provide most of the protein in this diet, lean meats are also acceptable in moderation.
Healthy bread is welcome, but be sure to read the label. White breads and some brown breads contain a lot of sugar, minimal or no whole wheat, and offer little, if any, nutritional value. These unhealthy breads can also spike your blood sugar, according to Health magazine.
Whole grain breads, on the other hand, offer many nutrients and can boost heart health as well as possibly reduce breast cancer risk when included in a well-rounded, healthy diet.
Herbs and spices are another important component of the Mediterranean diet that’s often absent from the standard American diet. Herbs, particularly fresh ones, contain many nutrients, anti-oxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds. To eat, try chopping rosemary, dill, and thyme, and sprinkling them on your morning omelet or even in a salad.
2. Limit alcohol
Alcohol, even wine, is generally linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Just one glass of wine per day can heighten risk, according to researchers from the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health.
Researchers have long connected heavy drinking to wine, but this new study is leading medical experts to recommend avoiding even lighter drinking.
Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to reduce breast cancer risk, reports NPR.
Regardless of age or weight, exercise has a protective effect for all women. Those who exercised for at least an hour each day saw the most benefit, with a 12% drop in risk. Overweight women who exercised saw a 10% drop.
The study results reported by NPR were more conservative than an earlier study published in Recent Results in Cancer Research, which estimated exercise could provide a 25% reduction in risk.
Even if you have limited mobility, any type of exercise will make you healthier and reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.
4. Reduce exposure to carcinogenic chemicals
Chemicals are in everything we touch, from household cleaners to shampoos and personal care products to foods in the form of pesticides.
Data is trickling in and still limited, but many experts recommend that women avoid added and synthetic chemicals as much as possible. Vassar College professor Janet Gray, PhD tells WebMD:
“It’s true that we have no direct links. But what we do have is a compilation of epidemiological studies, cell culture studies, and animal data that are all consistent and I believe are coming together to show us that some of what women are exposed to every day may be increasing their risk of breast cancer.”
Many studies analyze the effects of small amounts of chemicals, but women are exposed to low levels of a dizzying array of chemicals on a daily basis, over a long period of time. These chemicals add up.
Cosmetics and personal care products represent a particular danger, since they’re applied to the skin and seep into the body. However, they’re some of the least regulated products and are not required to undergo safety testing before hitting the market, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
Many products contain carcinogenic chemicals or those that disrupt the endocrine system and related hormones, according to the Breast Cancer Fund (BCF).
One easy way of reducing chemical exposure is by avoiding heavily scented products. Cosmetics companies don’t have to disclose the ingredients that make up their fragrances because it’s considered proprietary information.
Fragrances can include chemicals like phthalates, which disrupt hormones and may increase the risk of breast cancer, according to research published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
To see what chemicals your favorite products contain, check the free Skin Deep database.
Household cleaning products have also been linked to breast cancer, according to research published in Environmental Health. Reduce the risk by using all-natural cleaners like vinegar and baking soda.
5. Reduce stress
Stress is a top contributor to many of the nation’s most deadly diseases, and breast cancer is included in that list, according to the European Journal of Cancer Prevention. Women who reported high levels of stress faced double the risk of developing breast cancer, even when considering other factors like family history, alcohol use, and smoking.
Stress may also influence how aggressive breast cancer is, according to research from the American Association of Cancer Research.
Reduce stress through methods like meditating and learning to manage your schedule and not overcommit, recommends Pain Doctor.
6. Skip hormone therapy
Post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy is generally considered a risk factor for breast cancer.
In 2002, the landmark Women’s Health Initiative study showed women who took combination hormone therapy—estrogen and progestin—had a higher risk of developing the disease. Hormone use dropped off and so did rates of cancer. Combination hormone therapy can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer by up to 75%, according to BreastCancer.org.
Experts continue to parse the data and conduct new studies, and a more nuanced reality has emerged in recent years. Estrogen-only therapy, for example, may be fine to take for fewer than ten years. Talk to your doctor to determine the risks and benefits, which are different for every woman.
Breast cancer survivors, however, should not take hormones at all, according to BreastCancer.org.
What healthy habits to prevent breast cancer do you think are important?
Image by Guiseppe Milo via Flickr