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Lifestyle Changes That Reduce Breast Cancer Risk for Women And Men

Oct 15 2021
By Laura Roe Stevens
7 min read
A couple walking together on a hiking trail through the woods.

From early detection to employing specific health measures to reduce outcomes...

...research shows that it is possible to lower your risk of getting breast cancer.

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. The American Cancer Society reports that 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are believed to be caused by genes. In the United States, African-American and Caucasian women have the highest risk for breast cancer of all women between the ages of 20 and 59. While Caucasian women are more likely to develop breast cancer than African Americans, Latinas, Native American and Asian women, African American women develop a more aggressive and advanced stage of the disease at a younger age and are more likely die from it. But the complete picture is more positive: There are factors within your control that can help to reduce your risk of getting breast cancer. Below are the six most important steps you can take.

1. Know Your Family History

While only a small number of breast cancer cases have an inherited genetic component, it’s important to know if the disease is in your family’s past. If so, be sure to have regular cancer screenings so your doctor can closely monitor any changes for early detection. Remember, too, that men account for one out of every 100 breast cancer diagnoses in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their risk is higher primarily if they carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation or have Klinefelter syndrome (a chromosomal abnormality that increases the risk of men getting breast cancer by 20-30 percent), and it can be associated with testicular disorders, diabetes, gynecomastia, and obesity. So while the actual number of breast cancer patients is lower for men than women, the importance of diagnosis and treatment is just as high.

2. Get Screened Regularly

Early detection is always best, so stay ahead of the game—especially if you are in a higher risk group. Canyon Ranch physician Diane Downing, MD, recommends mammograms every other year for women beginning at age 40 and annually beginning at age 50.

Talk with your physician about if and when you should have annual mammograms – and whether you should begin earlier than 40 because of a higher risk. If you have dense breast tissue or are on HRT, you should have 3D mammograms. And if you’re behind schedule because of the pandemic or for any other reason, get started now. While it clearly doesn’t catch everything, a breast self-exam can sometimes save lives. “I still recommend it,” says Dr. Downing. “I have had a number of women share with me that they found their breast cancer by doing self-breast examination. One woman was only 27 years old.”

3. Limit Alcohol

Alcohol has a clear link to breast cancer in women: That mojito, martini, or glass of wine can cause increased levels of estrogen in the body and affects the liver’s ability to metabolize estrogen effectively. Women who have three drinks a week are at 15% higher risk than those who don’t drink at all, according to breastcancer.org. Mocktails such as our popular Pomatini make great substitutes. Breast cancer risk for men is not associated with alcohol use.

4. Take Vitamin D

From supporting your immune systems to promoting bone health to balancing your nervous system, multiple research studies have proven the importance of maintaining normal vitamin D levels for optimal health. A 2017 research study conducted with women from various countries and ethnic groups concluded that if there is a deficiency in vitamin D, the risk of abnormal breast cells forming increases. Dr. Downing suggests speaking with your doctor about getting a blood test to determine your vitamin D serum level. If it’s low, consult with your doctor about the proper amount of vitamin D supplement for you.

5. Monitor Menopause

During or after menopause, women who take combination hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with both estrogen and progestins have an increased risk of breast cancer for up to five years after treatment. This combination can also lead to increased breast density making it harder to find breast cancer on a mammogram. While taking estrogen-progestin therapy (EPT) is linked to higher risk, the good news is that within three years of stopping the hormones, the risk returns to that of a woman who has never taken EPT, as reported by the American Cancer Society. Its research also finds that taking HRT that only includes estrogen may be a better option for women who have had a hysterectomy. Estrogen alone does not increase breast cancer risk, but it may have a stimulating effect on underlying, susceptible breast cells. However, women who still have a uterus are at increased risk of endometrial cancer from estrogen-only HRT. Talk with your doctor about these medications and their possible effect on your personal breast cancer risk, so you can make the best decision for you.

6. Move More Daily

You don’t have to run marathons to get the health benefits your body receives from regular exercise. A study published by JAMA® states 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 intense activity each week. A good way to achieve that is to try to break a sweat for at least 20 minutes every day; activities like water aerobics, swift walking, and dancing all count. While exercise has not been proven to effect men and their risk for breast cancer, remember that 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 producing it in fat cells. Plus, insulin levels are often elevated in overweight women, a potential contributor to the disease. If your body mass index is over 25, losing weight will help lower your risk of breast cancer. What you eat may help you manage your weight and also ward off the disease. Dr. Downing recommends a Mediterranean diet for optimal breast as well as cardiovascular and brain health. Some studies have linked lowering the risk of breast cancer with diets high in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale, as well as diets high in fiber, fish, and green tea and containing less red meat and saturated animal fat.

Headshot of Diane Downing, MD at Canyon Ranch Tucson

About the Expert

Headshot of Diane Downing, MD at Canyon Ranch Tucson

Dr. Diane Downing

Dr. Downing is a board-certified family physician with professional interests that include women’s health, with an emphasis on helping navigate the transition through menopause, preventive medicine, cardiovascular health, and integrative medicine.