Women Can Take Active Role in Reducing Breast Cancer Risk

Learn Personal Risk; Create a Plan

Although no woman ever wants to hear the words breast cancer, improved treatment options have reduced the death rate. With a better understanding of the risks and how to manage them, a woman can also now do more to help lower her chances of developing breast cancer.

In the U.S., breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women after skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, about 230,000 women receive a cancer diagnosis each year, most of which are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 64. But the breast cancer death rate has dropped steadily by more than 30 percent over the past 20 years due to improvements in screening and treatment.

The key to proactively managing one’s breast health and finding breast cancer early is appropriate screening. Annual mammograms beginning at age 40 continue to be the best tool for early detection of breast cancer in women of average risk. If a woman has personal risk factors or a personal or family history of cancer, she may be at increased risk.

Through research advances and newer technologies, we are better able to assess a woman’s specific risk of developing breast cancer. Being aware of one’s risk allows a woman to take an active role in reducing her chances for developing breast cancer or catching it early, when it is most treatable.

Breast cancer risk factors

Anything that increases the chance of developing a disease is called a risk factor. Top risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • Being female
  • Age 50 or older
  • Personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases
  • Family history of breast cancer (female or male) or ovarian cancer
  • Having changes in certain breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2)
  • Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy
  • Treatment with radiation therapy to the chest/breast (such as for Hodgkin’s lymphoma)
  • Early menstruation or late menopause
  • Having never been pregnant or first pregnancy after age 30
  • Having dense breasts
  • Being overweight or obese after menopause

Women should learn their risks and create a plan

A thorough breast health assessment will take into consideration many of these risk factors and calculate a woman’s individual risk profile. That profile, in conjunction with her screening mammogram results, can provide a good picture of a woman’s level of risk for developing breast cancer in her lifetime. Working with her physician, a woman can create a plan that incorporates risk-reducing strategies specific to her. She may benefit from increased surveillance and management, including starting screening mammography before age 40, doing more frequent screening or adding other screening modalities like breast MRI. Breast MRI can be more sensitive to certain changes in the breast tissue and, when used with mammography, may provide additional information regarding a woman’s breast health.

Genetic testing and counseling may also be beneficial. A woman should work closely with her doctor and other healthcare providers to evaluate her options.

While not all risk factors are controllable, there are lifestyle factors that can help reduce the risk of breast cancer. More than 70,000 breast cancer cases per year (40 percent of all cases) could be prevented with lifestyle measures, according to the American Institute of Cancer Research.

Ways to reduce breast cancer risk:

Maintain a healthy weight, especially 
after menopause

Excess weight increases estrogen (a hormone). Hormones create a more stimulating environment for cancer to grow.

Don’t smoke

25-30 percent of all cancer-related deaths are due to tobacco. The risk of invasive breast cancer is highest in women who start smoking young.

Follow a healthy diet

Choose a diet high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein at every meal, low in animal fat and include foods that provide iodine and omega-3 fatty acids.

Limit alcohol consumption

Get enough sleep

Sleep metabolizes stress hormones.

Get regular physical activity

Women who exercise regularly have a lower risk for breast cancer. It’s never too early—or too late—to start; regular physical activity in adolescence may be especially protective against breast cancer.

The bottom line is that any woman can and should take an active role in her breast health. Stay on top of breast health screenings, learn what your specific risk is and partner with your healthcare provider to create your own breast health management plan. The goal is to give you every advantage in the fight against breast cancer.

Dr. Patricia Limpert is a breast surgeon and medical director of the St. Luke’s Women’s Center. To learn more about breast health assessment and management resources, visit StLukes-Stl.com/BreastHealth.com.