During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it can feel like discouraging statistics about cancer diagnosis are everywhere. And, while it’s true that breast cancer remains a prevalent disease and one that affects the lives of millions of women every day, it’s also important to remember that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity to educate yourself on prevention and how you can manage your breast health.
“In order to make their breast health a priority, women have to be willing to change some of their everyday habits,” says Marisa Weiss, MD, director of radiation oncology and breast health outreach at Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health, and founder of breastcancer.org. “Only 10 percent of breast cancers are largely due to an inherited genetic abnormality like BRCA1 or 2. That means that 90 percent of breast cancers are mostly due to lifestyle, reproductive, and environmental factors. There is now solid evidence that you CAN lower your risk by making changes to your everyday life. Even starting at age 50, you can lower your lifetime risk by 50 percent.”
Below, Dr. Weiss offers things women can do—starting today—to improve their breast health.
Get to a healthy weight
Getting and sticking to a healthy weight helps reduce the risk of breast cancer, as well as the risk of recurrence. About 30 percent of breast cancers are linked to being overweight or obese. Since 80 percent of weight loss depends on what you eat, it’s important to eat real food (mostly a vegetarian-based diet), avoid processed food and sugary drinks, and limit portion size. Plus, all the hard work you put into weight management will help you with your overall health. The example you set will help your loved ones make healthy choices, as well.
Get up and get out! Regular physical activity can benefit your health in a variety of ways. It lowers your breast cancer risk on its own, and exercise is one of the most effective strategies for weight management. Plus, it helps every aspect of your emotional and physical health.
To reap the many health benefits of a good sweat session, start with a minimum of seven minutes a day, but aim for four to five hours per week. Gradually begun to push yourself to five to seven hours per week.
This isn’t just a way to better your breast health—it’s a way to better your overall health. Smoking remains one of the greatest health risks for anyone and, in addition to increasing your cancer risk, it can also increase your risk for stroke, heart attack, and blood clots. Explore tactics to quit, including smoking cessation classes.
Cook real food
The drive-thru can sound like a tempting option after a long day, but the menu you choose at home and how you choose to cook it is probably better for your breast health and overall well-being.
Cooking a meal at home allows you to incorporate veggies, whole grains, spices, and lean meats for a more balanced meal. These ingredients are generally of higher quality and fewer calories than what you can find at restaurant chains, and don’t include additives that can contribute to your cancer risk.
Your cooking methods are just as important as the meals themselves. Instead of fried foods, try sautéing, baking, stir frying, and steaming. Use glass, metal, ceramic, or enamel-covered metal pots and pans. Avoid cooking with non-stick (especially Teflon-coated) pans and plastic.
Limit your alcohol use
An extra cocktail can do more than just mean you’ll have to call a cab to get home. Whether your drink of choice is wine, beer, or liquor, your breast cancer risk increases with every drink. Too much alcohol consumption can also make it difficult to manage your weight—another breast cancer risk factor.
To lower your breast cancer risk, less alcohol is best. Whenever possible, stick to three or fewer drinks per week. Remember: one alcoholic drink is equal to 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.
Get enough sleep
When you’ve got a busy schedule, sleep is usually the first thing you’ll sacrifice. But skimping on sleep can have serious health consequences, including an increased risk for cancer. Depriving your body of sleep means depriving your body of the time it needs to grow new cells and repair damaged ones. Over time, damaged cells may be prone to uncontrolled growth, including cancer cell growth. Plus, your immune system needs proper rest to do its job to police abnormal activity and heal injury. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep each night and stick to a regular sleep and wake time, even on the weekends.
Avoid taking extra hormones
Medications containing hormones can increase the risk of breast cancer. Combined hormone replacement therapy containing estrogen and progestin and a prolonged use of birth control pills are linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. It’s best to avoid or use the lowest dose of hormonal therapy for the shortest period of time. Talk to your doctor about non-hormonal remedies for symptoms of menopause. And, after five years of birth control pill use (which reduces the risk of ovarian cancer), seek non-hormonal effective forms of contraception, like the Paragard IUD.
Choose healthy personal care products
Personal care products like moisturizers, sunscreen, hairspray, makeup and household cleaners—all of which come in contact with your skin—can contain toxic chemicals. Opt for environmentally-friendly products, and those that are safe for use. Choose products without preservatives, like parabens and fragrances. Check out safecosmetics.com and the Skin Deep database at EWG.org.
Assess your cancer risk
Do you know your cancer risk? Although most of the contributors to our breast cancer risk are related to lifestyle and environmental factors, it’s still important to be aware of our inherited genetic predisposition to all cancers, including breast cancer.
Collect your full family history of cancer from both parents and share this information with your doctor. It’s also important to update your doctor about any changes to your personal or family health history at each visit. If you are at extra risk for developing breast cancer, then talk to your doctor regarding taking extra steps to lower your high risk.
Get a mammogram
Mammograms won’t prevent breast cancer, but they will detect it earlier, which can mean delivering lifesaving treatment sooner. If you’re age 40 and older, schedule an annual mammogram. If you have a family history of cancer or are designated as high risk because of other factors, talk to your doctor about whether or not you should begin getting mammograms at an earlier age.