5 Ways To Help Prevent Breast Cancer

This blog was originally published in Prevention.

Consider breast-feeding
Women who consistently breast-feed for the first 6 months have a 10% reduced risk of death from cancer, compared with those who don’t, found a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. One reason: Because a woman doesn’t menstruate while breast-feeding, it limits the number of cycles she has over a lifetime, which lowers the amount of estrogen to which her body is exposed. Bottom line: “There is significant data that suggests that breast-feeding lowers risk,” says Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer for the ACS. “If a mom can do it, it’s worth trying.” In other words, you’ve heard experts say that “breast is best” for babies, and now there’s extra proof that it’s best for moms, too.

Eat the right foods—every day
Research continues to produce promising evidence that what you eat can affect your risk. For example, Harvard researchers recently found that women who had the highest carotenoid levels in their blood had a 19% lower risk of breast cancer than those with the lowest levels. Carotenoids are found in fruits and vegetables such as leafy greens, carrots, and red peppers. Women who consumed more carotenoids had an even lower risk of developing estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer (which is often more aggressive). Other phytonutrients may also protect against breast cancer, including sulforaphane (found in cruciferous vegetables) and lycopene (the chemical that gives tomatoes their red color). The ACS recommends eating five or more servings of fruits and veggies a day, limiting processed and red meats, and choosing whole grains to help reduce risks of all types of cancer.

Finally, limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day—any more than that increases your breast cancer risk to 1½ times that of someone who doesn’t drink at all.

Detect it early
When breast cancer is caught early, the prognosis is often excellent. The 5-year survival rate for breast cancer that’s found early and confined to the breast is 99%, says the American Cancer Society (ACS). Here’s what you need to know.

If you’re of average risk (no family history), the US Preventative Services Task Force recommends having a mammogram and clinical breast exam every one to two years starting at age 50. Other experts and organizations including the ACS recommend starting mammograms in your early 40s. Speak with your doctor to determine the best plan is for you.

Be familiar with how your breasts feel normally so that you can report any changes in appearance or texture to your doctor. Also, always notify your physician if you notice any bleeding or crusting on the nipples and if you experience any pain.

Women at higher risk might want to start such screening much earlier and more often, and they might want to consider a screening MRI, as well.

What can “previvors” do?
You may have heard this hybrid word when Angelina Jolie announced this year that she’d had a prophylactic mastectomy after learning she had a BRCA mutation. You don’t need a faulty gene to be a previvor, though: It refers to anyone who hasn’t had cancer but is at high risk. And while a prophylactic mastectomy can drastically reduce risk, it isn’t your only option.

After learning that she carried the same BRCA mutation as her close relatives with breast cancer, Jill Amaya, 48, of Clayton, NC, started rotating between a breast MRI and a mammogram every 6 months. “This surveillance makes me feel more secure that, should something be detected, it’ll be caught early,” she says. Some women also opt for chemopreventive drugs such as tamoxifen, which reduce risk, along with close monitoring and lifestyle changes.

Make a battle plan for survivors
Eating right, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and being vigilant about screening can help you prevent a recurrence. You should also talk with your doctor about her recommendations for breast cancer screening—you may want to add ultrasound or MRI to your regimen. If you’re taking tamoxifen to treat breast cancer, your doctor might recommend you stay on it longer. A study recently presented at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology conference found that women who took the drug for 10 years instead of 5 had a significant reduction in the risk of recurrence.

You might also consider making an appointment with a genetic counselor, if you haven’t already. If it turns out that your breast cancer is linked to a mutation, your relatives might also be at risk of breast cancer, as well as ovarian and other cancers.

Finally, don’t let the rest of your health fall by the wayside. “It’s normal for women to focus on breast cancer after they’ve been diagnosed,” Mary L. Gemignani, MD, a breast surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “But as they move into survivorship, it’s important to remember other components of health, such as regular gynecologic and dermatologic visits and keeping up with other routine screenings.”