Breast Cancer: Is Prevention Possible?

When it comes to breast cancer, certain risk factors are out of your control, such as your genes and age, as well as starting first period young. Yet even more risk factors are within your control, and every day new research is emerging that suggests breast cancer may be more preventable than experts originally thought.

“Women can take steps to mitigate their risk of developing breast cancer and increase their chances of survival if it occurs,” said Dr. Arti Jonna, dedicated breast radiologist at Houston Methodist Breast Care Center at St. John. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of breast cancer:

Be (Really) Physically Active
Exercise, especially vigorous exercise, could be the single most important weapon in your arsenal. “Exercise is a huge factor when it comes to reducing a woman’s risk of breast cancer,” Jonna emphasized. “Some studies estimate a 15–30 percent risk reduction with moderate exercise, and the more a woman exercises, the more her breast cancer risk drops.”

Doctors think the exercise-estrogen link may account for the reduced risk. Here’s why: The greater your lifetime exposure to estrogen, the greater your risk for breast cancer. Exercise suppresses estrogen production by promoting lean body mass.

Maintain a Healthy Weight
Being overweight increases your risk of developing a variety of serious diseases, and breast cancer is one of them. Women who have more fat cells produce more estrogen and tend to have higher insulin levels, both of which are linked to an increased breast cancer risk. “Maintaining a healthy body weight throughout her lifetime, with a body mass index of 18.5–24.9, has many health benefits,” Jonna said.

Limit Alcohol
In addition to exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting alcohol to three or less alcoholic drinks per week can lower a woman’s risk. Compared with nondrinkers, women who consume two to five alcoholic drinks a day have about 1.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer. Jonna recommended that women who don’t want to abstain take a daily multivitamin with folate (folic acid). Studies have shown that an adequate daily folate intake may mitigate the risk of breast cancer associated with alcohol consumption.

Choose to Breastfeed
Jonna encouraged new mothers to breastfeed their babies if they’re able. “Evidence suggests that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer,” she said. “We know that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the greater the protective effect.” The reasons why aren’t clear, but one possible explanation is that women who breastfeed have fewer menstrual cycles throughout their lives, and thus less exposure to estrogen.

Consume Olive Oil
Studies have suggested that consuming more monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, may help protect against breast cancer, too. Houston Methodist is conducting a clinical trial examining how a major component of olive oil, hydroxytyrosol, affects breast density in women at high risk of breast cancer. Women with higher breast density have a higher breast cancer risk.

Taking Preventive Medications
If you’re at higher risk for breast cancer, your doctor may recommend medications such as tamoxifen and raloxifene to lower your risk. However, these medications can produce symptoms of menopause, so it’s important to discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor to make an informed decision.

The use of birth control pills has been shown in some studies to increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. However, Jonna said the risk is slight. “I don’t advise against taking birth control pills, unless a woman is at high risk,” Jonna said.

Genetic Testing and Intervention
If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, talk with your doctor about whether genetic testing is right for you. Mutations in certain genes, such as the BRCA genes, increase the risk of breast cancer.

Women with this gene mutation may opt for more frequent screenings or prophylactic surgery (breast removal). Removing the ovaries and fallopian tubes is also an option; in addition to reducing the risk of ovarian cancer, it helps prevent breast cancer by eliminating a source of hormones that can fuel some types of the disease.

Schedule Your Mammogram
Mammography is the most effective tool available in diagnosing breast cancer at an early stage, long before tumors are large enough to be felt or to cause any symptoms. Houston Methodist Breast Care Center at St. John offers 3D mammography to patients in a comfortable experience in a relaxing environment. To schedule an appointment online visit houstonmethodist.org/appointments or call 281.333.8858.

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