Ways to reduce your risk of breast cancer

By Lyda Rojas, MD  |  7/23/2018

There is a common misconception that breast cancer is hereditary when in fact 15 to 20 percent of cases are the result of familial or genetic predispositions. That means that 80 to 85 percent of women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease.

While there are several risk factors associated with developing breast cancer including age and just being a woman, recent evidence has shown that many of them are preventable. Key among them is leading a healthy lifestyle. Here are seven ways to improve your risk profile.

Exercise: Leading an active lifestyle helps in a myriad of ways including controlling weight and increasing metabolism. Weight gain results in an increase in your estrogen levels that can stimulate cell overgrowth and breast cancer. Exercising also helps regulate estrogen production by boosting your metabolism. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least five days per week. Brisk walking is a great option.

Limit alcohol intake: There is a growing body of evidence linking alcohol consumption with breast cancer. Alcohol can cause weight gain, increase estrogen levels and other hormones associated with hormone receptor positive breast cancer. An analysis of several studies showed that women who drank three drinks per day had 1.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer than nondrinkers. Try to limit your alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day.

Eat more fruits and vegetables: Research continues to show that a plant-based diet has a number of health benefits including protecting against breast cancer development. Carotenoids, found in leafy greens, sweet potatoes and red peppers, have antioxidants that protect cells from free radicals, toxic byproducts than can damage cell membranes. Phytonutrients also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to reduce your risk of cancer. They include carrots, squash, garlic, onions, chives and leeks. Fruits such as peaches, mangoes, melons and citrus are also high in phytonutrients.

Don't smoke: It is no secret that cigarettes are loaded with carcinogens and is the most common cause of lung cancer. In recent years, more and more studies are examining the cause and effect of smoking and breast cancer. While the findings have been mixed, quitting smoking or not picking up the habit at all is best for a woman's overall health.

Vitamin D: Some studies have found that women with normal levels of vitamin D had a lower risk of breast cancer while others did not find a link. More research is ongoing to determine if there is a connection but for now it is a good idea to maintain normal levels. Vitamin D, which is produced when the body is exposed to sunlight or consumed from food and supplements, converts into calcitriol, a hormone found in breast tissue. It is also important for bone health and to support the immune system. Check your vitamin D levels once a year and work to obtain an optimal vitamin D blood level of between 40ng/ml to 80ng/ml.

Hormone replacement therapy: Studies have shown that the long term use of hormone replacement therapy, taken to manage menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and mood swings, increases a women's risk of breast cancer. Talk to your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy. If you do opt to take it, work with your healthcare provider to minimize the dosage and duration of usage and follow up regularly to ensure the benefits continue to outweigh the risks.

Get tested: Women who are 40 and older should get a mammogram annually. Women with dense breast tissue, commonly found in young women and those with low body fat, should also get an ultrasound in addition to a mammogram. Since dense breast tissue appears as a solid white area on a mammogram, it can be difficult to see through and note developing abnormalities. While a breast MRI is not a regular screening tool, it is recommended for women with a high risk of breast cancer including those with the BRCA gene mutation.    

Dr. Lyda Rojas is a Caremount Medical breast surgeon and medical director of breast surgery at Putnam Hospital Center. Learn more about breast cancer screenings at Putnam Hospital Center.