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Breast Cancer: 7 Tips to Reducing Your Risk

Breast cancer refers to the formation of malignant tumor cells in the breast tissue. It is the most common type of cancer in women and the second leading cause of death in women, only behind lung cancer. Breast cancer has an incidence rate of 90 per 100,000 women in the United States, 78 per 100,000 in Western Europe, and 73 per 100,000 in Northern Europe.

Breast cancer often presents with a lump in the breast, bloody discharge from the nipple, breast pain, and red patches in the skin of the breast. These tumor cells may eventually begin to invade near organs – in a process called metastasis – causing corresponding symptoms including cough and chest pain if the cells invade the lungs, and bone pain if they metastasize to the bone. While there are several treatment options for people with breast cancer, the disease is preventable with knowledge of its modifiable risk factors.

The risk factors for breast cancer include increasing age, the presence of the genetic mutations (BRCA1 and BRCA2), a history of benign breast disease, family history of breast cancer or lumps, obesity, radiation exposure, smoking, alcohol, environmental factors, and prolonged exposure to estrogens as in late menopause.

Certain lifestyle changes have been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer, even in women with major risk factors, such as BRCA 1or 2 genetic mutations and a family history of breast cancer.

Reduce Alcohol Consumption

One way you can reduce your risk of breast cancer is by limiting your alcohol intake. Studies have linked the amount of alcohol one consumes to their risk of developing breast cancer. These studies reveal that consuming more than 3 drinks a day increases the risk by more than 1.5 times. Some of these studies recommend limiting intake to 1 drink daily or less to reduce one’s risk of breast cancer.

Quit Smoking

Smoking is a risk factor for more than 15 types of cancer, including breast cancer.  Cigarette smoke contains several cancer-causing chemicals, called carcinogens, which can alter cellular DNA and, in turn, promote the formation of cancer cells. Smoke cessation not only helps reduce your risk of breast cancer, it also cuts the risks of other health conditions, including heart disease and stroke.

Control your Weight

Women who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of breast cancer, especially post-menopausal women. This increased risk is attributed to the increased levels of estrogen in obesity – as fats cells produce estrogens from androgens.

Exercising for at least 30 minutes every day helps to burn your excess calories, keeping your weight in check, and reducing your risk of breast cancer significantly. The United States’ Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity every week, with strength training at least twice a week to keep one’s weight in check.

Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables

Studies have revealed that women who consume large amounts of fruits and vegetables have a much lower risk of breast cancer than those who consume small amounts. This Is due to the high content of fiber, vitamins C and E, and carotenoids, all natural anti-inflammatory agents – in fruits and vegetables.

The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests eating more than 400 grams of fruits and vegetables daily, and the American Cancer Society recommends consuming at least 2.5 cups of vegetables and fruits daily to reduce one’s cancer risk.

Avoid Birth-Control Pills

Birth control pills are beneficial for treating menstrual irregularities and certain gynecological conditions, such as ovarian cysts and endometriosis.  However, the increased estrogen levels associated with these pills may increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.

In cases where these medications are absolutely necessary, it may help to take the lowest possible dose or reduce the duration of use to the shortest time frame possible if you want to lower your risk of breast cancer.

Avoid Hormone Therapy

Hormonal therapy is prescribed for post-menopausal women in treating menopausal symptoms. These drugs contain high doses of estrogen, which increases the risk of breast cancer. Taking these drugs for more than three to five years increases your risk of breast cancer significantly.

While you may treat menopausal symptoms with non-hormonal therapies and drugs, your doctor may recommend hormonal therapy for short-term use, after considering the benefits vis-à-vis the risks. In these cases, however, the lowest dose and the shortest duration of treatment should be considered.

Breastfeed, if Possible

Studies have revealed that mothers who breastfeed have a significantly lower risk of pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer than mothers who don’t. Furthermore, breastfeeding longer than the recommended six months confers additional risk reduction.

This association between breastfeeding and low breast cancer risk is because breastfeeding and lactation cause certain hormonal changes in women, which delay the resumption of their menstrual periods after childbirth. This delay reduces her lifetime exposure to estrogen, therefore reducing the risk of breast cancer.

What Else Can I do?

In addition to the above recommendations, ensure you find out your family history – for anyone who had breast cancer – to help you estimate your risk for the disease. In addition, routine screening is recommended to help detect and treat breast cancer early.

Screening involves examining your breasts using a mammogram. The frequency of this evaluation varies with age – yearly if you are age 40 to 44, yearly if you are aged 45 to 54, and once every other year if you are age 55 or over.

You can also perform regular self-examinations and report to your healthcare provider if you feel any unusual changes in your breast.

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