Written by Elizabeth Boham, MD
Breast Cancer Risk and Prevention

Breast Cancer Risk and Prevention

An estimated 330,000 new cases of breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in American women this year. This is a scary statistic, but an important one to be aware of. Through conscious lifestyle choices, you can reduce your risk for breast cancer, while reducing your risk for other chronic diseases as well.

Though there’s clearly more to learn, we are able to recognize certain contributing factors and identify certain groups with higher likelihoods of breast cancer. For one, we can see that the risk of breast cancer increases with age, due to an increased amount of circulating estrogen that accumulates throughout life. For that same reason, women who naturally have predominantly higher levels of estrogen, or have taken oral contraceptives or pharmaceutical hormone replacement for extended periods of time, also have an increased risk.

Fat cells can make estrogen (though prior to menopause the ovaries take the brunt of that task). So, it makes sense that there is a link between being overweight and having an increased risk for breast cancer, especially after menopause, as during that time in life fat becomes the primary source of estrogen production in the body. Being overweight also increases the risk of recurrence, for those that are in remission. Body composition plays a role here, too, as those with fat around the belly have a higher risk than those who carry fat around the hips and thighs. For those who are overweight, lowering body fat percentage is an important part of reducing their risk of breast cancer and staying healthy.

Another risk factor for breast cancer is frequent antibiotic use. We’re continuously learning more and more about the role of the gut microbiome (good bacteria) in the immune system, and studies have found links between antibiotic use and increased incidence of breast cancer. While more research is needed, this could be due to the fact that antibiotics can reduce the capacity of microflora to metabolize phytochemicals into cancer protective compounds within the gut, as well as disrupting the normal digestive metabolism of estrogens.

Every woman should look at prevention as the first step to breast health. We should be starting with breast awareness in young adulthood, and focusing on staying healthy to avoid disease rather than regaining health after disease is already detected.

So what does conscious breast cancer prevention look like? While your first answer may mammograms, this is a controversial topic. Mammography is detection, not prevention, so it only helps us identify a problem once it exists. We don’t currently have a better screening method, though, and research supports getting mammograms every other year between the ages of 50 and 74. Prior to 50, women should talk their doctor to decide when the best time to start would be, based on family history, breast exams, age, and other personal risk factors.

The truest form of prevention comes in your lifestyle and dietary choices. One aspect of this is getting good exercise for at least 30-40 minutes a day. In general, woman who are physically active have a lower risk than those who are not. Balancing blood sugar is also very important, because spikes in insulin and glucose feed cancer cells. This means limiting refined sugar and carbohydrates and eating lots of colorful vegetables with phytonutrients, plant compounds that have cancer fighting properties. I always suggest eat from the rainbow every day; try to get 9-12 different sources of phytonutrients in your diet regularly to support and protect your body. Stress reduction is also a part of cancer prevention, as a chronic elevation in stress hormones has been found to weaken the immune system and put the body at risk. Caring for your gut bacteria is another essential piece, eating lots of fiber and fermented foods will help support your microbiome.

My personal prevention program looks something like this: I make exercise my “me time” and make sure I prioritize things that are fun to help me de-stress and lower cortisol, like yoga and spending time with my family and friends. I pay attention to what I eat, making sure to include a wide variety of phytochemicals as well as supporting my microbiome with probiotics and lots of fiber rich foods like ground flaxseed. I drink green tea to get a compound called EGCG, which has cancer fighting properties. Everyone’s prevention plan will look different, but these are the actions I’ve found help me feel my best.

We can’t always control what our bodies do, but we can certainly guide them in the right direction. That’s why prevention is so important—start taking care of your body now with these protective steps to reduce your risk of breast cancer and support your overall health.

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