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What Can You Do to Reduce Your Breast Cancer Risk?

breast cancer survivor

Consider the women in your life: your mother, daughters, aunts, sisters or partner; your friends and coworkers; the barista at your regular coffee shop. Then consider that, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, one in every eight Canadian women will develop breast cancer. It’s possible that someone you know will be among them. But you and your loved ones don’t need to sit idly by — there are many ways that you can help to reduce your risk of getting breast cancer, even by making small adjustments to your everyday life. And studies show that these methods can make a difference. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 50% of all cancer cases worldwide stem from preventable causes, including lifestyle choices and environmental hazards.

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Banff Plastic Surgery team wants you to help us spread the word about what every woman can do to help prevent breast cancer from happening to her or someone she knows. With your help, we can continue reducing breast cancer rates in Alberta, across Canada and throughout the world. Take strides toward a healthier future with us, and share this guide among your friends and family.

Regulate your diet and exercise.

Keeping your body at a healthy weight is one of the best and easiest ways to lower your risk of developing breast cancer, especially for postmenopausal women. One study published in JAMA Oncology in 2012 found that postmenopausal women with a BMI of 35 or over were at a 58% higher risk of developing breast cancer than women with a BMI of 25 or below. In addition, the study noted that breast cancer was twice as likely to be fatal for women with a BMI over 35.

Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise is not only good for breast cancer prevention, but is beneficial for countless other aspects of your health. Eating well and working out can:

  • Reduce your risk of illness like heart disease and diabetes
  • Help you feel more energetic and confident
  • Improve cognitive function through older age
  • Extend your overall life expectancy

What’s more, these methods are simple changes that you can start to make at home in your daily life. Start slowly by taking short walks or jogs every day, or swapping junk food snacks for fruits and vegetables. You’ll feel better as you notice changes in your health, and you’ll be working toward lowering your risk of breast cancer at the same time.

Quit smoking and limit your alcohol intake.

In 2009, the Canadian Expert Panel on Tobacco Smoke and Breast Cancer Risk published a seminal study that confirmed a long-debated connection between smoking and breast cancer. The study’s key points include:

  • Long-term smoking, heavy smoking and smoking from an early age can increase breast cancer risk by 10 to 30%
  • For women with a particular mutation of a gene called NAT-2, smoking tobacco raised breast cancer risk by 35 to 50%
  • Pre-menopausal women were susceptible to secondhand smoke, with prolonged exposure leading to a near doubling of breast cancer risk

Studies about alcohol and breast cancer have similarly concerning outcomes. Epidemiologists at Columbia University in New York City note in a 2014 paper that, compared to women who don’t drink alcohol, regular drinking can increase the risk of breast cancer by up to 50%. The paper cites other studies and analyses that show risk increasing incrementally with higher levels of alcohol intake:

  • Even just one drink per day can increase breast cancer risk by 5%
  • Three or four drinks per day led to a 32% risk increase
  • More than four drinks showed a 46% risk increase

The researchers go on to theorize that these impacts have a few possible biological mechanisms behind them. For example, some products of alcohol breakdown in your body are known breast cancer carcinogens; and, alcohol intake can alter levels of estrogen, which is a hormone known to trigger certain forms of breast cancer.

Much like maintaining a healthy weight, cutting down on alcohol and quitting tobacco are ways you can prevent breast cancer and a multitude of other health concerns by making gradual and manageable changes in your own life. Switch your glass of wine with dinner for sparkling water, or spend time with friends engaging in sober activities rather than out at the bar. You can also ask your doctor about nicotine patches or gum for smoking cessation. Plus, these habits are expensive — consider setting aside the money you would have spent on drinks or cigarettes, and donating it to breast cancer research.

Understand your hormone levels. 

Many women take medications or supplements that contain hormones like estrogen and progesterone. These hormones naturally occur in the body, but regulating them via medical intervention can help with irregular menses, alleviate symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), reduce acne, control menopause symptoms and function as contraception. Heightened levels of these hormones, however, are also associated with certain forms of breast cancer; some types of cancer cells bind to estrogen and progesterone and replicate more quickly as a result. In addition, some women are genetically more likely to develop these types of breast cancers and are therefore more at risk when their hormone levels are raised.

While several studies show that modern birth control pills do not significantly raise the risk of breast cancer in young women, if you have a family history of breast cancer, you may want to consider non-hormonal forms of contraception. If you are peri- or postmenopausal, you should always talk to your doctor about possible alternatives or lower doses of hormonal medications, as these treatments have been associated with heightened risk of breast cancer by research including the Million Women Study.

Learn more about breast cancer and how you can help. 

Understanding and addressing the factors that might put you or someone close to you at risk for breast cancer is the first step toward prevention. But there are other ways to help, as well: donate to research, participate in awareness events near you, encourage your loved ones to lead healthier lives, get regular mammograms, volunteer with cancer patients at your local hospital and more. And, if you or a loved one has received a breast cancer diagnosis, remember that there is support available and options for treatment and recovery. 

At Banff Plastic Surgery, we are committed to empowering women to love their bodies and lead healthy lives. Although we do not provide breast reconstruction at our offices in Banff, Alberta, we are proud supporters of BRA Day (Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day) and Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We offer a variety of services that can build your confidence, boost your motivation and encourage you to take an active role in your wellness. Learn more about our mission and our treatments, and call us at 403-762-2055 to make your consultation appointment.