BLOG: 5 tips to Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer
Published 16 Jan 2017
Since I started working for Breast Cancer UK, I have learnt a lot about the causes of breast cancer and the various risk factors. Being over 40, I’ve begun to think more about my long term health and wellbeing, and how I can improve my lifestyle to ensure I have a better quality of life in old age.
And over a short period of time, I have made a number of changes to my lifestyle and environment which I believe will help reduce my risk of developing health problems, including breast cancer as well as other conditions now and in later life.
Here are my top five tips for improving your health and reducing your risk of breast cancer. Remember small changes add up over time and you’ll be amazed by the difference they can make to how you feel.
Reduce the amount of alcohol you drink
The most consistent dietary risk factor for breast cancer is alcohol. Scientific evidence suggests a strong relationship between alcohol and breast cancer, even at low levels (1).
Here’s the science bit - Drinking alcohol increases levels of serum oestrogens, which are associated with increased breast cancer risk (2). Alcohol metabolism also produces chemicals called acetaldehyde and reactive oxygen species, which can damage cells. Acetaldehyde and reactive oxygen species are carcinogenic and can accumulate within breast tissue (1).
Tip: Set realistic targets, don’t just go cold turkey! Start by finding favourite alternatives such as herbal teas or fruit smoothies and getting into the habit of not drinking during the week. But don’t make up for it at the weekend by binge drinking – over a short period of time, you’ll find your cravings and capacity for drinking will diminish.
Improve your diet
What you eat is key to controlling your weight and maintaining a healthy weight can dramatically improve your overall health and wellbeing, including reducing your risk of breast cancer.
There is strong evidence that excess weight is a risk factor for post-menopausal breast cancer (3) and that high vegetable and fruit intake lowers your breast cancer risk (4). A Mediterranean style diet has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women (5).
Tip: Many of us over eat without realising. Recording what you eat, even if it’s only over a period of a couple of weeks, will show you where you are going wrong. There are now even apps for that, which make it even easier to monitor what you are eating. Knowing what you really eat and not what you think you eat is crucial to changing your habits to help lose those excess pounds!
Exercise more, any type of exercise counts.
As with alcohol, we are constantly bombarded with messages about increasing the amount of exercise we do. But the effect exercise has on reducing your risk of breast cancer is considerable, especially for post-menopausal women. Moderate exercise (150 minutes per week) is estimated to reduce the rate of breast cancer in post-menopausal women by 20-30% (7).
Exercise helps to reduce body fat. This will reduce the levels of oestrogen and other sex hormones which fat cells release into the bloodstream (these hormones can increase your breast cancer risk) (8). Exercise also reduces inflammation, enhances the immune system, reduces insulin resistance and decreases oxidative stress, which also help reduce cancer risk (9).
Tip: Walking is the easiest form of exercise to get you into the habit of exercising. There are lots of ways to add walking into your daily life. Start by parking your car in the next street from your home, get off the bus or train one or two stops before your work and walk the remaining distance, always use the stairs instead of the lift or escalator. You’ll be surprised by how easy it is to reach that 150 minutes per week.
Reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals
Our modern lifestyles mean we are exposed to numerous synthetic, potentially harmful chemicals on a daily basis, from the household cleaners we use to the food that we eat. Increasing exposure to chemicals that have the ability to interfere with our hormones (otherwise known as endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs) may be contributing to the increase in the number of women getting breast cancer.
There are over 80,000 manufactured chemicals, of which around 1000 have been classified as EDCs (10), although many have not been tested for the hormone disrupting properties at all. Of those that have, some (e.g. the banned insecticide DDT and banned PCB flame retardants) are known to increase breast cancer risk and many others (e.g. BPA, parabens and phthalates) are suspected of doing so. Biological measurements of chemicals in body fluids and tissues shows nearly all humans have these harmful chemicals in their body. But studies also suggest that avoiding exposure to certain sources can help to reduce levels in the body.
Tip: change the products you use – look at the products you currently use to see if they contain any potential chemicals of concern. Our Reduce Your Risk section can help you identify them.
Start by swapping for a more natural substitute or cutting it out completely! It’s hard to change everything at once, so start by making one change this month, do the same next month and by the end of the year you will have dramatically reduced your contact with potentially harmful synthetic chemicals.
Think twice about taking HRT or using oral contraception
Combined hormone replacement therapy (HRT) (synthetic oestrogen and synthetic progestogen) increases breast cancer risk (11). The longer it’s taken, the greater the risk. However, risk is immediately reduced when HRT is stopped and decreases over time, and after 5 years the risk is no longer evident. Most studies have found HRT containing oestrogen only slightly elevates risk.
Use of combined oral contraceptives (synthetic oestrogen and synthetic progestogen) also slightly increases breast cancer risk; but once stopped, the risk reduces and after 10 years is no longer evident (12).
Like many other EDCs (mentioned above), HRT and the pill are oestrogen mimics. Here’s a bit more science to help explain why this is important. Oestrogens increase the risk of developing breast cancer mainly because of their ability to increase rates of cell division and their ability to promote growth of oestrogen responsive tumours. The more a cell divides, the more likely mutations will occur and accumulate. The accumulation of particular mutations in breast cells can lead to breast cancer (13). So HRT and the pill, like other EDCs, can increase breast cancer risk and therefore you may want to think twice before taking a course of HRT or the pill, or at the very least discuss possible adverse side effects with your doctor.
Tip: If you have concerns about HRT or the pill, it is important to consult your doctor before taking any decisions or coming off any prescribed medicines. Do your research and speak to your doctor about possible alternatives. Diet and exercise can help to relieve many of the symptoms of the menopause and there may also be some natural remedies you can try – but again consult your doctor for advice as pre-existing medical conditions can affect the alternatives you can choose.
If you have any concerns about the pill, consult your doctor about alternatives to hormonal contraceptives, especially if you have been a long-term user of contraceptives containing combined synthetic oestrogen and progesterone.
We can’t totally eliminate our risk of breast cancer, but there is a lot we can do to reduce it – and in doing so, we’ll reduce our risk of a lot of other illnesses and conditions too! 2017 is our year of prevention – could you make it yours too?
Louise Bowers, Communications Manager.
1. Shield, K. D. et al. (2016). Alcohol use and Breast Cancer: A critical review. Alcoholism. Clinical and Experimental Research 40(6). 1166-1181. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27130687
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8. Schmidt, S. et al (2015). The integrative role of leptin, oestrogen and the insulin family in obesity-associated breast cancer: potential effects of exercise. Obesity reviews 16: 473–487. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25875578
9. Warburton, D. E. R. and Bredin, S. S. D. (2016). Reflections on Physical Activity and Health: What Should We Recommend? Canadian Journal of Cardiology 32(4): 407-409. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26995692
10. Schug, T. T. et al. (2016). Minireview: Endocrine Disruptors: Past Lessons and Future Directions. Molecular Endocrinology 30(8): 833–84. http://press.endocrine.org/doi/pdf/10.1210/me.2016-1096
11. Jones, M. E. et al. (2016). Menopausal hormone therapy and breast cancer: what is the true size of the increased risk? British Journal of Cancer (2016) 115, 607–615. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27467055/
12. Chlebowski, R. T. et al. (2015). Breast Cancer after use of Estrogen Plus Progestin and Estrogen Alone Analyses of Data From 2 Women’s Health Initiative Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Oncology 1(3): 296-305. http://oncology.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2250347
13. Neubauer, H. et al. (2011). New insight on a possible mechanism of progestogens in terms of breast cancer risk. Hormone Molecular Biology and Clinical Investigations 6(1): 185-192. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25961254