A Woman's Guide to Breast Cancer Prevention

Almost one out of nine women is expected to develop breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women.

So far, researchers haven't found any fool-proof way to prevent breast cancer except voluntary mastectomy (surgical removal of the breasts) for women at extremely high risk. Short of taking this drastic step, the best way a woman can protect herself against breast cancer is by practicing early detection methods and by reducing known risk factors. If breast cancer is found and treated early—before it has spread beyond the breast—the five-year survival rate is greater than 95 percent.

Are You at Risk?
Over 200,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Here are the common risk factors associated with the disease:
  • Being female. Breast cancer is most prevalent in women, although men can develop the disease as well. While Caucasian women are more likely to develop breast cancer than African-American females, the death rates are 30 percent higher for African-Americans.
  • Getting your period young. Starting your period before the age of 12 increases your chances of developing breast cancer, possibly due to greater exposure to hormones over the course of a lifetime.
  • Family history. If anyone in your immediate family (mother, sister, or daughter) has had breast cancer, you are also at greater risk. Breast cancer can run in families, but this does not mean you will automatically develop the disease. Genetic testing and counseling is available for women concerned about their risk.
  • Late childbearing or no childbearing. Becoming pregnant for the first time at age 26 or older—or never getting pregnant at all—puts you at risk. In contrast, having multiple children reduces your risk of developing breast cancer, possibly because of protective hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy.
  • Heavy drinking. While the occasional alcoholic drink is okay, consuming more than two drinks per day increases your chances of developing breast cancer. Women who consume two to five drinks each day are about 1-1/2 times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who don’t drink.
  • Smoking, especially at a young age. Studies have suggested that smoking at an early age can increase your risk of breast cancer. A study by the Dankook University College of Medicine in Korea found that the breast cancer-promoting effects of smoking were strongest in young women who had not yet had children. The risk may be lower after childbearing because, by then, breast cells have finished developing and are less vulnerable to carcinogens.
  • Being overweight. General obesity has been associated with increased breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women. But the amount of weight gained in adult life is a greater predictor of breast cancer risk than weight alone, according to a study from Morehead State University in Kentucky. Their researchers found that women who gained more than 60 pounds between age 20 and menopause had a roughly 70 percent higher risk of breast cancer, compared with women who gained fewer than 20 pounds. There was a 4 percent increase in risk for each 11 pounds gained as an adult.
  • Eating a high-fat diet. In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the National Cancer Institute found that women who consumed the most fat—regardless of what type—were 15% more likely to develop breast cancer than women who ate the least fat.
  • Hormone replacement therapy. Studies have shown a strong link between post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and breast cancer. If you need HRT, talk to your doctor to determine your personal risk level.
Protecting Your Pair
These 8 tips may help you cut your breast cancer risk.
  1. Check out your breasts. Performing breast self exams (BSE) regularly—once a month—can help with early detection. When breast cancer is detected early, less aggressive treatment is needed and the chance of survival is higher. Ask your doctor to show you how to examine your breasts properly or watch SparkPeople's Breast Self Exam video.
  2. Maintain a healthy weight. And if you're overweight, lose it. Keeping your weight in a healthy BMI range can have a protective effect. Why? Because being overweight increases your body's levels of estrogen, a hormone that plays a key role in the development of breast cancer.
  3. Get a mammogram. If you're 40 or older, regular mammograms will help detect breast cancer—especially lumps that are too small to detect during a self-exam.
  4. Breastfeed your babies. Nursing isn't just good for babies—it benefits mom too! One study by the University of Southern California found that breastfeeding seems to lower the risk of breast cancer, even in women who have their children later in life. As more women choose to delay childbearing until after age 25, breastfeeding should be encouraged to provide protection against the hormones that can contribute to the development of breast cancer.
  5. Eat your vegetables (and fruits)! Eating at least seven servings of fruits and vegetables each day will supply your body with cancer-fighting phytochemicals. You'll get the most protection from cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower), dark leafy greens (collards, kale and spinach), citrus fruits, berries, cherries and pomegranates.
  6. Choose the right fats. Today, our diets contain a lot of unhealthy fats—omega-6's (found in sunflower, safflower, corn and cottonseed oils), saturated fats and trans fats—and too few healthy fats (omega-3's from fish and monounsaturated fats in nuts). Reverse the trend! Decrease your consumption of the bad stuff and start eating more heart-healthy fats to protect your breasts.
  7. Keep moving! You know exercise is good for you, but did you know it can also reduce your risk of breast cancer? Studies by the Women’s Health Initiative found that women who walked briskly for just 1-1/4 to 2-1/2 hours each week reduced their risk for breast cancer by 18 percent. University of Southern California researchers found that women who exercised more than five hours a week cut their risk of invasive breast cancer by 20 percent and their risk of early stage breast cancer by 31 percent, compared to women who exercised less than 30 minutes a week. When it comes to cancer prevention, experts agree that duration (length of your workouts) and consistency are more important than intensity.
  8. Know when to see your doctor. Besides your annual gynecological checkups, visit your doctor immediately if you notice any of the following symptoms in your breasts: a lump, hard knot or thickening tissue; swelling, warmth, redness or darkening; dimpling or puckering of the skin; an itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple; a pulling in of your nipple or other area of the breast; sudden nipple discharge; or new pain in one spot that doesn’t go away.
To learn more about breast cancer screening, prevention and treatment, check out our Breast Cancer Video Series.
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Member Comments

Iíd like to reiterate what the research shows and that is that by following these tips you can REDUCE your risks. This does not mean that you will never get breast cancer just like if someone has ALL the risk factors they are not guaranteed to get it 100%.

This does not mean that we should just give up and not live as healthy as possible. That is a ridiculous sentiment. Why give all chronic diseases free rein on our bodies.

I would also like to say that there are 5 different types of breast cancer. Iím not an expert and am not sure of the fifth type, but I do believe that there are estrogen positive and negative pre and post menopausal types. The other may be linked to another hormone such as progesterone or testosterone.

@TAECEME the article does briefly mention African American women under the being female category saying that they have higher mortality rates than Caucasian women. However it doesnít say why which I believe is 2 fold. 1). Black women are more likely to have pre menopausal breast cancer which is much less prevalent but much more aggressive than post menopausal. Also since African Americans are more likely to be economically less stable and less likely to have health care they often can not afford to treat the disease to the full extent once they have it. I think itís important to include these facts but I donít think SP was trying to be exclusionary.

As I stated above, regardless of what everyone gets out of the article, I think itís purpose is to give everyone information about how to reduce the risk factors, not tell you how to wave a magic wand and ensure you never get it. If that was the case that would be called a cure and we wouldnít have to read these articles because nobody would get it.

Awareness is what it is all about-- we may be able to avoid certain lifestyle ways and possibly reduce our risks--but that does not insure dodging cancer. All we can do is be as healthy as possible, do self exams, and regular mammograms. Early detection is our very best defense. Report
Several issues with the article, 1st - having an early mastectomy may reduce your risk but does not eliminate it by any means. 2nd - there are plenty of women in their early to mid 20s that are being diagnosed with breast cancer worldwide and many of them are still being told young women do not get breast cancer. 3rd - eliminating processed foods does help but is only a small part of reducing your risk and if you read all the studies - there are too many to read (unless you are up all night and day for the entire week after your diagnosis because you cant sleep or eat or do anything but look for anything that can tell you why YOU got this thing) and every study contradicts every other study. From so much of what I have read the risk factors involving food/exercise/wei
ght are all factors that need to start prepuberty and continue through old age for any one of them to have a significant risk lowering effect. I was low risk, exercised, overweight but not obese, early children, breastfed and was 47(low age) with no direct family history. Before I was diagnosed I had a 0.9 percent chance when the national average is 12%. Breast cancer doesn't care about statistics and it doesn't discriminate. Articles like this open up the blame game - coulda woulda shoulda. This also doesn't take into account the millions of women who have hormone receptor negative breast cancer. I normally love the articles on Spark, but this one missed the target Report
here's another tip: Don't eat sugar. Let me be more specific: Greatly reduce all carb consumption. Carbs are metabolized into sugar (so if you have eaten carbs, you've eaten what will become sugar in your body!) . All cancers feed on sugar. Report
I suppose articles like this are inevitable. We all like to think that we can prevent life-threatening diseases by some type of behavior. My wife had breast cancer, not once, but twice. She had zero risk factors and practiced all the behaviors mentioned in this article. We always like to think we can avoid cancer only if we eat right and maintain a healthy weight.

I only wish that was true.

The flip side is that many of our friends and acquaintances blamed my wife for her getting breast cancer! This blame game was not to slam my wife. Other people were afraid of getting cancer so they had to believe they had some control over this deadly disease.

Sometimes cancer just lands on a person and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. I do agree with this article that regular screening is absolutely vital to surviving cancer.

My wife is cancer free, but she does not consider herself a "survivor". She says she will be a breast cancer survivor when she dies of something other than breast cancer. She "survived" once, and got breast cancer again! She survived the second round. She is afraid that three strikes and she will be out.

The links to the videos no longer work. Report
this is the 3rd or 4th Breast Cancer Awareness ad or article I've seen this weekend with NO African-American women in them. Does that mean SparkPeople doesn't believe African-American women don't get breast cancer? Report

Putting all this money into research for after we get it is like putting a fire out is easier by not starting it. Harder to fix after you have it. JUST EAT BETTER. Mainstream medicine and big pharma are making money off of this because there is no money on eating better. Report
The SparkPeople email subject was: 8 Healthy Habits That Prevent Breast Cancer

and it featured this article.

I find that very misleading. As has been demonstrated repeatedly in these comments, there is NO way to PREVENT breast cancer.

This is very unfortunate, hurtful and misleading and falls short of my high expectations for SparkPeople's quality. Report
Thanks AZUR-SKY. I never really looked at it as if no one in my family doesn't have it. It doesn't mean I can't get it. Report
I had none of the risk factors (other than being female) and still developed breast cancer at 45. I followed the eight things you can do for yourself. I discovered it in a self breast exam. So never believe you can't get it. And it is curable. I am a thirty year survivor. Report
i'm so glad to read all that hav been said but since u mentioned that breast cancer can be found sometimes in men too, i was expecting u to elaborate a little on how men can also avoid and control theirs. Report
Age 26 is considered "late childbearing?" Seriously?? Report
Thank you for mentioning breastfeeding! Too many women do not know about this. Report
Please stop lumping saturated fats with trans fats and excess omega-6s.

The study mentioned about a high fat diet, while I didn't see a reference I would assume it's an observational study and thus can only show correlation, which does not equal causation. There are also observational studies showing women who eat less fat had higher rates of cancer.

Either way, saturated fats are not causing ill-health since they are part of our natural way of eating. Many tribes consuming their native diets with plenty of animal (sat fats) did not suffer high rates of breast cancer. Report


About The Author

Leanne Beattie
Leanne Beattie
A freelance writer, marketing consultant and life coach, Leanne often writes about health and nutrition. See all of Leanne's articles.
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