What can I do to reduce my risk of breast cancer?
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and we want to raise awareness about the disease. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in the U.S. It’s the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. after lung cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the average woman in the U.S. has a 12% risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. Meaning there is a 1 in 8 chance a woman may develop breast cancer, with an estimated 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer in 2018.
The first step in preventing breast cancer is knowing how to detect it.
What are the signs of breast cancer?
Generally speaking, the most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. They can differ, some are painless others are painful. For this reason, it’s important to see a healthcare professional if you find any new breast mass, lump, or change.
Other possible symptoms of breast cancer include:
- Breast of nipple pain
- Breast swelling (all or part, even if no lump is felt)
- Discharge from your nipple, other than breast milk
- Nipple retraction (turning inwards)
- Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the breast skin or nipple
- Skin irritation or dimpling
Although many of these symptoms can be caused by other things besides breast cancer, if you have them, report them to your doctor so they can find the cause.
Knowing the symptoms of breast cancer as well as your risk level is important. Even more relevant for women who don’t have a family history, less than 15% of women who get breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it. You can’t control risk factors like family history or gender, but you can make healthy lifestyle changes to help to lower your risk of getting breast cancer even if you are high-risk.
What can I do to help reduce my risk of getting breast cancer?
- Eat a healthy diet. A poor diet can be bad for many reasons including increasing your risk of breast cancer. Diet is thought to be responsible for about 30% to 40% of all cancers—at least partly. A healthy diet may decrease your risk of some types of cancer, as well as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Studies show that diets rich in vegetables, fruit, and fish like the Mediterranean diet are associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer.
- Get regular exercise. A sedentary lifestyle with little physical activity can increase your risk of breast cancer. Being active and working out regularly may reduce your chances of developing breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends all adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes hours of vigorous intensity activity each week, preferably spread throughout the week. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Moderate intensity activities could be activities like taking a brisk walk over your lunch, dancing, riding your bike, and general yard work.
- Get enough sleep. There is a lot of evidence out there linking sleep to a poor quality of life. Lack of sleep is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. One study found women who chronically lacked sleep developed more aggressive breast cancers. These findings suggested there may be a link between long-term sleep deprivation and the development of more aggressive tumors. Simply put, not getting enough sleep puts women at a higher risk of the disease.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Overweight and obese women—having a BMI (body mass index) over 25—have an increased risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared to women who maintain a healthy weight, especially after menopause. Losing weight can be harder as you get older, but can be done with changes to your diet and regular exercise. If you don’t know where to start, talk with your doctor about a safe and sensible plan based on your specific needs.
- Cut out alcohol, or drink very little. Higher alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer. Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with breast cancer. It may also increase risk by damaging DNA in cells.
- Stop smoking. Smoking increases your risk for a number of diseases and is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in younger, premenopausal women. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. Also, try to limit your exposure to second-hand smoke. If you smoke, find a way to quit. The American Lung Association offers a free online smoking cessation program. The American Cancer Society also has a quit smoking program.
- Reduce the toxins around you. The chemical you find in cosmetics, food, and the products you use in your daily life may expose you to chemicals that contribute to the development of cancer. Chemicals can affect estrogen and other hormones in the body. They block them or mimic them, which throws off the body’s hormonal balance. Estrogen can cause hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer to develop and grow, so many women choose to limit their exposure to the chemicals that can act like estrogen. Also reduce exposure to carcinogens by limiting exposure to fumes from gasoline, exhaust from diesel, and other fuel combustion.
- Reduce stress. Breast cancer is associated with high levels of psychological distress. Chronic stress is known to lower immune function and leads to a host of other diseases including breast cancer. Reducing stress in your life could be a significant improvement for many reasons including preventing breast cancer. You can find a list of ways to deal with stress here.
- Avoid unnecessary radiation exposure. Medical-imaging methods, such as computed tomography (CT) imaging, use high doses of radiation. If your doctor orders an X-ray, especially high dose ones like CT scans, be sure they know how many X-rays you’ve had in the past so they can assess if the procedure is medically necessary. If it’s not an emergency situation, ask if there is an alternative examination that would suit your situation. Some alternatives include an ultrasound or MRI, neither of which involves radiation.
- Get regular screenings. Know how your breasts normally look and feel and report any breast changes to a healthcare provider right away.
- For women with an average risk of breast cancer, clinical breast exams may start in the 20s and happen every one to three years into the 30s.
- Women ages 40 – 44 have the choice to begin annual breast cancer screenings with a mammogram (x-ray of the breast) if they wish to do so.
Starting at age 45, women should get yearly mammograms.
- At 55, women can choose to switch to every two years but regular screenings should continue for women in good health. Whichever age you start screenings, make sure to be familiar with the known benefits, limitations, and potential harms linked to breast cancer screening.
Other things to consider
Another thing to keep in mind for your breast health is to know whether you have dense breasts. Having dense breasts means there is more tissue than fat in the breasts making it harder to detect cancer on a mammogram—both tumors and breast tissue show up white, while fat looks dark. Having dense breasts makes your cancer risk up to six times higher. Experts aren’t sure why but speculate it could be that there is no standardization for measurement of breast density, so doctors’ scores are subjective.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle will lower your risk of developing cancer, and improve your chances of surviving cancer if and when you are diagnosed. Discuss ways to reduce your risk of getting cancer with your doctor and take full advantage of preventive care services included in your health coverage.
For questions about health insurance or to enroll in a Marketplace healthcare plan this Open Enrollment, let us help. Our Consumer Advocate team is happy to help anytime, give us call at (855) 974-5045.