Breast Cancer Prevention: Things Women Can Do To Avoid It

Breast Cancer Prevention: Things Women Can Do To Avoid It

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in women. About 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. While some risk factors like family history can’t be changed, there are steps all women can take to lower their risk of developing breast cancer. This article will provide an overview of breast cancer prevention methods that women can incorporate into their lives.

Get Screened Regular screening won’t prevent breast cancer, but it can help detect it at an early stage when it’s most treatable. Experts recommend:

  • All women between 40-44 should have the option to start annual mammograms.
  • Women 45-54 should get mammograms every year.
  • Women 55+ can switch to a mammogram every other year, or continue annual screening. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health.

In addition to mammograms, clinical breast exams by a medical provider should be done at least every 3 years for women in their 20s and 30s. Annual exams are recommended for women 40 and over. Women at high risk may also need MRIs along with mammograms.

Know Your Risk There are several factors that can increase breast cancer risk including:

  • Family history of breast cancer, especially having a mother, sister or daughter diagnosed. Having a first degree male relative with breast cancer also raises risk.
  • Inherited genetic mutations in genes like BRCA1 or BRCA2. Women with these mutations have up to a 70% chance of developing breast cancer.
  • Previous abnormal breast biopsies showing atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS).
  • Dense breast tissue, which makes abnormalities harder to detect on mammograms.
  • Previous radiation therapy treatment to the chest or breasts before age 30.
  • Being overweight, especially after menopause.
  • Not having children or having a first child after age 30.
  • Starting menstruation early (before age 12) or beginning menopause late (after age 55).
  • Using combined hormone therapy after menopause.
  • Drinking more than 1-2 alcoholic drinks per day.

Knowing your family history, breast density, and other risk factors can help you and your doctor determine appropriate screening schedules. Genetic testing may be advised for some women.

Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices Many of the risk factors for breast cancer are tied to hormones. Steps that may help lower hormone exposure include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding weight gain around menopause.
  • Getting regular physical activity. aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity like brisk walking each week.
  • Limiting alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink per day for women.
  • Considering breastfeeding if you have children. Breastfeeding for over 1 year total can reduce risk.
  • Avoiding hormone replacement therapy or using it at the lowest dose that relieves symptoms.

In addition, eating a nutrient rich diet focused on plant foods may help lower risk. Key dietary tips include:

  • Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.
  • Choose healthy fats like olive oil and avoid saturated fats.
  • Limit red meat and processed meats like deli meats, bacon and sausages.
  • Avoid refined sugars and desserts. Limit fast food.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking mainly water.
  • Maintain a healthy weight without drastically restricting calories.
  • Take a daily multivitamin or vitamin D supplement.
  • Limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day.

These diet and lifestyle steps have benefits beyond just breast cancer prevention, as they can also lower risk for other cancers, diabetes, heart disease and more.

Consider Breastfeeding Multiple studies show that breastfeeding can lower breast cancer risk, especially the longer a woman breastfeeds. Breastfeeding for at least 1 year over a woman’s lifetime has been associated with a 20-30% reduction in risk.

Researchers believe that breastfeeding influences breast cancer risk in multiple ways:

  • It delays the return of regular ovulation after pregnancy, reducing lifetime estrogen and progesterone exposure.
  • Breastfeeding reduces the total number of lifetime menstrual cycles.
  • It induces the breast tissue into full maturation, making it more resistant to carcinogens.
  • Breastfeeding causes cells to differentiate, removing potential DNA damaged cells.

The protective effect of breastfeeding seems strongest for triple negative breast cancers. Breastfeeding is recommended for many reasons, so women who are able may want to breastfeed their babies for at least 6 months or longer.

Stop Smoking and Limit Alcohol Substances like tobacco and excessive alcohol are clearly linked to increased breast cancer odds. Steps to take include:

  • If you smoke, quit. Your doctor can recommend smoking cessation help and programs.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke exposure at home or work as much as possible.
  • Limit alcoholic drinks to 1 per day or less. The less you drink, the better.
  • Avoid binge drinking episodes – having more than 2-3 drinks in a short period of time.
  • Take a monthly break from alcohol such as “Dry January” or “Sober October.”

Smoking is estimated to account for at least 10% of breast cancer deaths. The toxins in cigarettes enter the bloodstream and can damage breast tissue. Alcohol raises estrogen levels in the blood and body. The combination of drinking and smoking creates an even higher breast cancer risk.

Limit Radiation Exposure Ionizing radiation exposure from medical imaging tests like X-rays, mammograms, CT scans and fluoroscopy may slightly increase breast cancer risk. While the doses used in these tests are considered safe, they still involve a small amount of radiation. Steps to take include:

  • Discuss the need for any radiological tests with your doctor and ask about alternative options when feasible.
  • Wear a lead apron when given breast x-rays.
  • Limit dental x-rays to every 2-3 years if you have no dental problems.
  • Choose a Digital mammogram when possible instead of film mammography.
  • Don’t avoid needed CT scans or X-rays, but don’t get unnecessary screening tests too frequently.
  • If you had previous chest radiation before age 30, discuss with your doctor the appropriate breast screening plan for you.

The average woman has a small cumulative risk from necessary imaging tests. But avoiding unnecessary tests limits your radiation exposure. Those who had radiation therapy to the chest or breasts before age 30 should take extra precautions as they are at highest risk.

Limit Hormone Therapy Combined hormone therapy for menopause has both estrogen and progesterone. It’s been found to raise breast cancer risk when taken for over 3-5 years. Women who still have a uterus need progesterone to prevent cancer of the uterus from estrogen therapy. But progesterone may increase breast cancer risk more than estrogen alone. Steps to reduce risk include:

  • Take the lowest dose of hormones to relieve your menopausal symptoms. This is often a lower dose than previously prescribed.
  • Consider topical vaginal estrogen which has less whole-body effect compared to oral hormones.
  • Weigh the benefits of relieving menopausal symptoms against the small increase in breast cancer risk. Discuss with your doctor.
  • If you do decide to use hormones, have an annual breast exam and limit use to 5 years if possible.

Estrogen-only therapy does not appear to increase breast cancer risk significantly in the short term. However, there are still debated risks with long term use over 10 years. Women without a uterus can take estrogen alone since they don’t require progesterone.

Consider Preventive Drugs In high risk women, preventive drugs like tamoxifen and evista have been shown to reduce the chances of developing breast cancer by 30-50%. These drugs block the effects of estrogen on breast tissue. Doctors may prescribe them in the following cases:

  • Women with a very high breast cancer risk based on family history and genetic factors.
  • Women who had LCIS or atypical hyperplasia on a previous breast biopsy.
  • Women who had radiation therapy before age 30.

Tamoxifen is taken for 5 years by pre-menopausal women. Evista is the option for post-menopausal women. Side effects can include hot flashes, vaginal discharge or blood clots with Tamoxifen. These drugs lower breast cancer risk but don’t eliminate it completely. They shouldn’t replace screening mammograms but can provide additional prevention.

Consider Prophylactic Surgery For the small percentage of women at very high risk, prophylactic mastectomy (preventive breast removal) may be considered. This reduces the risk of developing breast cancer by at least 95%. Preventive ovary removal in pre-menopausal women with BRCA gene mutations can also be considered since it reduces both breast and ovarian cancer risk.

Prophylactic surgery doesn’t guarantee that cancer won’t occur, but it is the most extensive risk-reducing option for BRCA mutation carriers. This decision needs to be carefully made with your doctor based on your specific risk factors, family history and genetic testing results. Women considering this major surgery should receive counseling to fully understand the benefits, limitations, complications, and psychological effects involved.


No woman can prevent breast cancer with 100% certainty. However, the steps described in this article can help lower the chances of developing breast cancer. Getting regular screening mammograms as recommended, knowing your personal risk factors, making healthy lifestyle choices, and discussing options with your doctor can go a long way in reducing your risk. Addressing modifiable risk factors and boosting your body’s defenses against cancer are proactive ways all women can help safeguard their breast health. While you can’t change your genetics, you can control many day-to-day choices and behaviors that influence your cancer risk.


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