There’s a lot to celebrate when it comes to breast cancer, like steadily decreasing rates since the year 2000. But we still have a long way to go. About 12 percent—1 in 8 women in the US—will develop invasive breast cancer sometime in her life. Our most significant risk factors are 1. being a woman and 2. being older. Women over 55 account for two-thirds of invasive breast cancers diagnosed each year. This is because, over time, we tend to accrue genetic mutations, and with age we’re less adept at repairing them.
Those are the facts. But we don’t have to just wait for the shoe to drop. We can make lifestyle adjustments that will lower our risk of getting this cancer and improve our overall quality of life. When it comes to health and our bodies, things are indeed beautifully and intricately connected.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese—those with a body mass index (BMI) over 25—increases one’s risk of developing breast cancer, especially after menopause. This could be because estrogen is stored in fatty tissue, and women who have more fat are also exposed to higher levels of estrogen, which has been undeniably linked to breast cancer. But other issues related to obesity may also be involved, such as insulin and glucose levels. Some estimates suggest that 17 percent of breast cancers in North America could be avoided simply by maintaining a healthy body weight.
- Eat healthy food. Not only will a healthy diet help maintain a healthy weight, but it’s a critical component to avoiding cancer. Some foods contain properties that help repair the wear and tear to our bodies in the normal course of life. The link between food and cancer isn’t always straightforward or well-understood, and dietary fads change with the season. Basically, though, the approach to healthy eating remains the same: eat a variety of foods with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Avoid processed foods. Avoid fats and sugars. Above all, avoid super-sugary beverages, which are directly linked not only with obesity but also with some forms of cancer. Finally, eat fresh and eat at home, where you have more control over ingredients and portions. Eat organic foods to avoid exposure to synthetic chemicals.
- Exercise. Weight, diet, and exercise. This is the trifecta of good health. Some well-regarded sources say that 30-40 percent of cancers could be avoided simply with these healthy lifestyle choices. That’s staggering. And when you add in quality of life factors that come with the trifecta, well, it’s overwhelmingly worth the difficulty of losing weight, eating well, and exercising regularly, wouldn’t you say? Even women who have already been diagnosed with breast cancer may improve survival rates or prevent recurrence with moderate exercise, like walking only 4-5 hours per week, according to the American Cancer Institute. It doesn’t matter what your physical ability is right now—just start slow and keep on going.
- Don’t drink. Sorry to be a killjoy, but the more you drink, the greater your risk. A woman who has three alcoholic drinks per week is 15 percent more likely to get breast cancer than a woman who doesn’t drink at all. If you’re on hormone replacement therapy or if you’ve already been diagnosed with breast cancer, you should be one of those non-drinking women.
- Don’t smoke. This almost goes without saying. Yes, the major risk is lung cancer, but actively smoking as well as exposure to second-hand smoke increases the risk of breast cancer in premenopausal smokers. Plus, women who smoke have greater difficulty recovering from breast cancer treatment.
- Avoid chemical exposure. This is like trying to dodge raindrops, given the chemical soup we live in every day. And most of the chemicals in our environment and in the things we use have never been tested for toxicity or carcinogenic properties. Some types of chemicals are known to be hormone-disrupting, which alter the way our natural hormones function. Research is ongoing about the way these substances work and their link to possible cancers, but the connection isn’t well understood.
This is, I know, an intimidating list. Choosing one or two areas for focus and making a few changes is better than doing nothing at all! And the foundation you lay now will become even more important in maintaining health and functionality as you age.