Women in the US have a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer, putting the disease front-of-mind for all of us. Data shows that only 5 to 10% of cases are due to hereditary factors, meaning we all carry risk. While we may not be able to control whether we develop cancer, and even for those of us who have already faced the disease, there are several proactive measures we can adopt to try and keep our body as healthy as possible. Here are a few practices that not only can lower our risk of cancer, but also enable us to take better control of our general health and wellness.
1. Control our weight.
Managing a healthy weight is tough for most of us. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 70% of American adults are overweight. As women, being overweight or obese after menopause can increase the risk of breast cancer, because after our ovaries stop producing estrogen, the majority of the estrogen in our body comes from fat tissue. In other words, having more fat can up our estrogen levels and in turn, increase our chance of developing cancer. When we're overweight, we also tend to have higher levels of insulin -- another hormone that carries risk factors. To offset these factors, it's important to control our weight by exercising and eating healthy.1
2. Limit our alcohol intake.
Research consistently shows that drinking alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine, and liquor-based cocktails, increases our risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol both raises levels of estrogen and progesterone as well as cause DNA damage. More specifically, women who consume a minimum of three alcoholic drinks weekly have a 15% higher chance of getting breast cancer. Some experts even say that risk goes up another 10% for each additional drink women consume daily.2 So, the general recommendation is to limit ourselves to less than one drink per day, as even small amounts can pose a threat.3
3. Quit smoking.
It's no surprise that smoking is bad for us, but it's also a huge risk factor for many types of cancer, including breast. Studies have shown a strong connection between tobacco intake and breast cancer, especially in younger, premenopausal women.4 And vaping is no exception! Research also indicates a relationship between heavy second-hand smoke exposure and breast cancer in postmenopausal women. Inhaling tobacco can also complicate treatment, such as damage to the lungs from radiation therapy, difficulty healing after surgery and a higher propensity towards developing blood clots when taking hormonal therapy.5
4. Avoid exposure to radiation and environmental pollution.
Recent studies have identified a correlation between breast cancer and exposure to radiation, specifically for people who live in geographical locations with high levels of airborne radiation or who have undergone high-dose medical imaging methods. While scans are often a necessary evil of life, it’s important to inquire with our doctors about low-dose mammograms or alternative imaging such as MRI’s that don’t involve such exposure. Every time we travel by plane, we're exposed to small doses of radiation, as well as every time we go through TSA security full-body scanners. But did you know that we can opt-out of those? All we have to do is inform the TSA agent at the checkpoint, and s/he will direct us to another area where we will be hand-searched by a female employee (worth it!). Last, by becoming more aware of potential sources of chemicals and unhealthy byproducts in our food, we can help further detox our body.6
5. Breastfeed our children.
While not all women are able to breastfeed due to health complications or other personal reasons, breastfeeding is linked to a decrease in the risk of pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer. Especially for those who do so longer than the recommended 6-months, breastfeeding can have a protective effect, due to a diminished lifetime exposure to estrogen. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, we also shed breast tissue, and this shedding may eliminate cells have potential DNA damage.7
6. Consume a healthier, cleaner diet.
No diet can prevent us from a diagnosis, but some foods can boost our immune system and help keep our risk for breast cancer as low as possible.8 In order to help prevent the development or progression of cancer, its recommended to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables (organic and raw), fiber (whole grains, beans, and legumes), healthy Omega fats, sources rich in vitamin D and other vitamins, spices with anti-inflammatory properties, and mainly plant-based foods that contain antioxidants. Practice avoidance of alcohol, refined sugar, dairy, unhealthy fats, poorly sourced meats and processed foods.8
7. Stay physically active.
Harkening back to our first recommendation about controlling body weight, exercise is one of the greatest ways to do so. Being physically active can also provide support to our bodies during treatment, and if we go into a procedure in good shape, our strength will often enable us to rebound faster. The goal? Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week, plus strength training at least twice a week.9
What else can we do?
Stay vigilant! Check our breasts on the first of every month, and immediately report any findings to doctors, such as skin changes, a new spot or discharge. Also, it's important to inquire about the optimal time to begin mammograms or other preventative screening options based on our personal history.
There are many aspects of life that are beyond our control, including cancer. However, sometimes exercising control over little things can make us feel a sense of empowerment that we’re doing everything we can to stay well. And maintaining a healthy lifestyle may even improve our prognosis in the face of illness. By focusing on our body, mind and spiritual wellness, we can improve the quality of life and promote more happiness for us and our loved ones.
"Caring for your body, mind, and spirit is your greatest and grandest responsibility. It's about listening to the needs of your soul and then honoring them." – Kristi Ling