The possibility of breast cancer may be on your mind: Maybe you’ve heard that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Perhaps a family member has been diagnosed with breast cancer. But something has you wondering if there are ways to reduce your risk of getting breast cancer.
The answer is yes. Even though there’s no way to completely prevent breast cancer, there are things you can do to support your breast health and overall physical health at any age. Here are nine tips to get you started.
1. Know the risk factors
Breast cancer is caused by a combination of factors, including your age and gender – you’re more likely to get breast cancer if you’re a woman over the age of 50 years old. Other risk factors include your family history of breast cancer, race, overall health and lifestyle choices.
Some breast cancer causes can’t be changed – you can’t turn back the clock, for example. But there are risk factors you can influence – things like diet, exercise and tobacco use.
Plus, knowing your risk factors can aid in early detection and help guide conversations with your doctor about breast cancer screening.
2. Find a doctor who supports breast health – and you
If you already have a primary care doctor and are over the age of 40, they probably have already started talking to you about getting your first mammogram.
But if you’re still choosing a primary care doctor, you may have questions about what kind of doctor you should see about breast health. For example, can you see an OB-GYN instead of a primary care doctor?
In truth, you have a lot of choices. OB-GYNs, family medicine doctors, internal medical doctors and med-peds are all trained to support breast health and breast cancer prevention.
Whatever doctor you choose, you can expect them to help you identify risk factors, determine if you are at a high risk and support you in making healthy decisions to lower your risk for breast cancer. They’ll also provide guidance about when and how often you should be screened for breast cancer.
3. Get screening mammograms on a regular basis
Screening mammograms are used to check for breast cancer when you don’t have symptoms. The reason for screening mammograms (even if you don’t have symptoms) is that there’s often no visible signs in the early stages of breast cancer. That is why screening mammograms are so important – they help find breast cancer in the early stages, when it’s easiest to treat.
4. Talk to your doctor about your medications
Some medications, like birth control and hormone therapy, may increase your risk for breast cancer. But your doctor can work with you to limit your risks if you need these medications. Here’s what you should know:
- Birth control. Research suggests that birth control pills can increase your risk of breast cancer by 20-30% while you take them and for about 10 years after you stop. But because your chance of breast cancer is low during your childbearing years, the benefits of birth control likely outweigh the risk of taking them.
- Hormone therapy. There are two types of hormone therapy to help you manage menopause symptoms. One option uses a combination of progesterone and estrogen. The other only uses estrogen. Using progesterone leads to a higher chance of breast cancer in post-menopausal women. But the estrogen-only therapy for menopause does not appear to increase your risks unless it’s used for more than 10 years.
5. Breastfeed, if possible
A common question is, does breastfeeding prevent breast cancer? The answer is a definite yes. Numerous studies show that breastfeeding can reduce your chance of getting breast cancer, especially if you continue for at least a year.
6. Limit or avoid tobacco and alcohol
Even a few alcohol beverages each week can increase your risk of breast cancer. To reduce your risks, avoid alcohol when you can. When you drink, try to limit yourself to no more than one drink in a day.
Quitting smoking will reduce your risk of breast and other cancers, and is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall health.
7. Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly
Research has shown that an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise can potentially increase the risk of breast cancer. Foods to limit are fried foods, processed meats, added sugar and refined carbs.
Women who get regular physical activity have a lower chance of getting breast cancer than those who aren’t active. While exercise reduces the breast cancer risks for all women, the benefit is most clear in women who have already gone through menopause.
What foods can help prevent breast cancer?
No food or diet can eliminate your risks of breast cancer. But there are some foods that may lower your risks, including fruits, vegetables, fatty fish and beans.
Plus, maintaining a healthy diet can help you keep your weight at a healthy level, which can lower your risk of cancer – as well as other conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Plus, a balanced diet will help you feel your best and strengthen your immune system.
How much exercise reduces breast cancer risk?
According to the American Cancer Society, you can reduce your risk of cancer if your weekly schedule includes 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate exercise or 1 to 2 hours of vigorous exercise.
Getting in 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day is a good goal to have. Possible activities include walking, slow dancing and even cutting the grass.
8. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer
Pay attention to your breasts. Do you notice lumps or thickening in your breast or underarm area? Is one of your nipples turning in or is there blood or fluid coming from it? Is the skin on your breast flaking? These are some possible signs and symptoms of breast cancer but there can be others.
So if you notice any changes in your breasts or nipples, it’s a worth seeing your primary care doctor. They’ll help identify what you should do next – whether that’s getting a diagnostic mammogram or something else.
9. Know your options if you are at a high risk for breast cancer
Talking to your doctor is the best way to understand your risk factors for breast cancer. If you have a higher risk of getting breast cancer, there are options that can help with early detection and prevention. However, it’s important to remember that none of these choices are guaranteed to completely eliminate your chance of breast cancer.
Additional testing for breast cancer
- Additional or more frequent mammograms
- Biopsies to determine if a breast lump is made from benign (harmless) or cancerous tissues
- Genetic counseling to determine if you’ve inherited a gene mutation that makes it more likely that you’ll develop breast cancer
Other possibilities for very high-risk cases
- Taking medicines like anastrozole, raloxifene and tamoxifen
- Having surgery to remove both breasts (for very high-risk cases)
- Having surgery to remove your ovaries
Receiving care at a breast health center
Some clinics, including the Jane Brattain Breast Center, Regions Hospital Breast Health Center and Lakeview Breast Health Center, focus entirely on breast health care. These locations offer mammograms and advanced testing techniques. And should you need treatment for breast cancer, they’ll coordinate care with oncologists, surgeons and other specialists.
Take the next step in breast cancer prevention
If you have questions or notice anything unusual about your breasts, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. And if you haven’t yet had a mammogram for breast cancer screening, ask them when you should get your first mammogram – most women should start around age 40.
If you’re ready for your screening mammogram, you can schedule your appointment – you don’t need to wait for a doctor’s order. Because screening mammograms are preventive care, there’s usually no out-of-pocket costs for members. But before you schedule your appointment, it’s a good idea to check with your insurance company to see if you’re covered.
We offer mammograms at more than 20 locations across the Twin Cities and in western Wisconsin.