As of yet, there is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women in this country. Even so, there are steps women can take to reduce their risk. And October, which is nationally recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is the ideal time to take them.
One key safeguard is for women to maintain a healthy weight, especially in midlife and later. After menopause, most of the hormone estrogen in a woman’s body comes from fat cells. Estrogen can spur the growth of many breast tumors, and being overweight or obese can raise breast cancer risk. Women may be especially vulnerable to breast cancer if extra pounds settle on their waist, rather than their hips and thighs.
These additional steps may help women reduce their risk for breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS):
• Avoid alcohol. Drinking is clearly tied to a heightened risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, your risk increases the more you drink.
• Be active. A growing body of research indicates that exercise lowers breast cancer risk. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week.
• Carefully weigh the pros and cons of hormone therapy. Hormone therapy that uses both estrogen and progesterone can increase breast cancer risk in as few as two years of use. The use of estrogen alone after menopause does not seem to raise the risk of developing breast cancer. If a woman and her doctor agree that hormone therapy is necessary to ease bothersome menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, it is best to take the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time.
Since breast cancer can develop even with these precautions, the ACS advises women to have yearly mammograms starting at age 40 and continuing for as long as they are in good health.
Regular mammograms (breast x-rays) can detect cancer in its early stages and give women a head start on potentially lifesaving treatment. If you have a heightened risk of breast cancer—for example, if you have very dense breasts—ask your doctor if you need additional screening tests, such as an MRI scan.