With all of the growing awareness efforts about breast cancer in recent years, it may be hard to shake the worry that it could be in your future—especially knowing that one in eight women will be diagnosed in her lifetime. But it may help to remember the flipside of this statistic—that seven out of eight women will elude such a diagnosis—and that where you fall within those odds depends a lot on factors that are within your control.
It’s true that breast cancer can be hereditary, and that there are other risk factors—including your age, race and breast density—that you can’t control. (Older women, white women and those with dense breast tissue are at increased risk.) But the complete picture is more positive: Only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are believed to be caused by genes, and that means there’s a lot you can do to reduce your risk, both today and in the future. Here, five of the most important steps you can take:
Work Toward a Healthy Weight
Women who are overweight or obese after menopause have a greater risk of developing breast cancer. That may be because this is the time when the body switches from producing estrogen—which can encourage some kinds of breast cancer to develop—in the ovaries to doing so in fat cells, which overweight women have more of than their peers. Plus, insulin levels are often elevated in overweight women, and this may also contribute to the disease. If your body mass index is over 25, losing weight can help protect you against breast cancer (as well as many other health concerns). What you eat may help you manage your weight and ward off the disease: Some studies have linked diets that are heavy on fruits and veggies, poultry, fish and low-fat dairy with a lower risk of breast cancer.
Getting enough physical activity will help you keep off extra weight. It could also lower your breast cancer risk by regulating hormones implicated in the disease and by boosting your immune system. You don’t have to run marathons to get the benefits: In one study, 1.25 to 2.5 hours of brisk walking every week reduced women’s risk of breast cancer by an impressive 18 percent. To bring down your overall cancer risk, the American Cancer Society suggests you get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week. A good way to achieve that is try to break a sweat for at least 20 minutes every day. (Activities like water aerobics, gardening and dancing all count.)
Be Mindful of Your Alcohol Intake
Alcohol has a very clear link to breast cancer: That mojito, martini or glass of wine can disrupt your liver’s ability to control the amount of estrogen in your body. Women who have one alcoholic drink a day are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than those who don’t drink, but that risk becomes much higher for women who have two or more drinks a day. Considering limiting yourself to one adult beverage daily, or cutting back even further. (Mocktails, such as our Almosjito and Pomatini, make for great substitutes.)
Know Your Family History
While only a small number of breast cancer cases have an inherited genetic component, it is important to know if the disease is in your family’s past. If more than one of your close relatives—your mother, sisters, grandmothers or aunts—have ever been diagnosed with breast cancer (especially at age 50 or younger), there’s a chance you may have inherited either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations, which are the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer and can greatly raise your risk. Changes in several other genes occasionally lead to inherited breast cancer, but these are rarer and don’t increase your risk as much. You can be tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations (as well as some of the other genes associated with hereditary breast cancer).
If you do have a family history of the disease, earlier and more frequent cancer screenings and close monitoring by your doctor can increase your chances of early detection. After careful consideration, some women opt for a prophylactic mastectomy, which can remove all or most of the tissue in their breast(s). Working with your doctor will help you determine the best next steps for you.
Talk Openly with Your Doctor About Hormones
It’s important to know that taking hormonal birth control pills may increase your breast cancer risk—but only slightly, and for a limited time. Women who haven’t used the Pill in 10 years or more don’t seem to have an increased risk, however. During or after menopause, women who take combination hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with both estrogen and progesterone have an increased risk of breast cancer for up to five years after treatment. Talk with your doctor about these medications, as well as your personal breast cancer risk, so you can make the best decision for you.