Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer globally and accounted for an estimated 30% of newly diagnosed cancers in American women in 2022. Breast cancer is also one of the leading causes of cancer-related death in women in the United States, second only to lung cancer.
While it is impossible to guarantee complete prevention, there are several proactive steps that you can take to reduce your risk. In this article, we will explore the top five things to keep in mind when it comes to breast cancer prevention.
Early Detection Saves Lives
Early detection is perhaps the most crucial aspect of breast cancer prevention. Mammograms have been a helpful tool in the early detection of breast cancer, leading to faster treatment and better outcomes.
In the past, screening was recommended for women starting at age 50, with a recommendation that women in their 40s speak with their doctor about personal risk factors that may require earlier screening. However, based on findings from a study published in April 2023 in JAMA Oncology, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (Task Force) is now recommending that all women of average risk start getting regular mammograms at age 40 instead of 50.
This change opens the door up for 20 million more women to consider earlier screening, with the potential to save 19% more lives, according to the Task Force.
“The best screening test for breast cancer continues to be mammograms combined with a clinical breast exam,” says Radha Iyengar, M.D., a breast surgeon on the medical staff at Texas Health Allen and at Texas Health Breast Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “Women at average risk in the U.S. should start getting mammograms at age 40 and annually after that.”
Women should perform self-exams monthly, become familiar with their breast tissue, and report any unusual changes or lumps to their doctor promptly. Clinical breast exams are performed by your physician, typically during your annual Well Woman exam. These exams should be conducted at least every three years for women in their 20s and 30s, and annually for those aged 40 and older.
While the American Cancer Society no longer advocates for regular clinical breast exams or breast self-exams as part of a routine breast cancer screening schedule, Iyengar adds that this does not make a case for these exams never being done.
“In some situations, such as for women at a higher-than-average risk for developing breast cancer, your doctor may still offer clinical breast exams, along with providing counseling about risk and early detection,” she explains. “Additionally, some women may still opt for regular self-exams for peace of mind and to keep track of how their breasts look and feel so they can identify changes as soon as possible.”
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
Adopting a healthy lifestyle is another crucial aspect of breast cancer prevention. This includes maintaining a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, and managing stress.
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins provides essential nutrients and antioxidants that support overall health and may reduce the risk of breast cancer. Because alcohol increases the risk of developing breast cancer, you should also be mindful of your alcohol intake. Even drinking small amounts has been linked with an increased risk. If you drink, try to have no more than 1 alcoholic drink a day. A drink is considered 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (hard liquor).
Physical activity helps control weight, which is an important factor as obesity has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Studies have shown that moderate to vigorous physical activity is linked with lower breast cancer risk. The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week (or a combination of these).
Additionally, practicing stress management techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, or yoga can help reduce the impact of chronic stress, which can weaken the immune system and potentially contribute to cancer development.
Quit Smoking and Avoid Secondhand Smoke
Smoking is a well-established risk factor for numerous types of cancer, including breast cancer. Smoking introduces harmful chemicals and carcinogens into the body, which can damage DNA and increase the risk of cancer development. Moreover, exposure to secondhand smoke can also have adverse health effects, including an increased risk of breast cancer.
If you are a smoker, seek assistance and support to quit smoking as soon as possible. Quitting smoking is one of the most significant steps you can take to reduce your risk not only for breast cancer but for a wide range of other health issues as well.
If you don't smoke, it's crucial to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. Encourage those around you to quit smoking, and steer clear of environments where smoking is allowed.
Additionally, you should be mindful of smoking-related products, such as electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes or ‘vapes’) and hookahs. These products also pose health risks and may contain harmful chemicals.
Hormone Therapy and Birth Control
Using hormone therapy after menopause can increase your risk of breast cancer. Some forms of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and certain types of birth control pills contain hormones that may increase the risk of breast cancer. If you are considering HRT for menopausal symptoms or birth control methods, discuss the potential risks and benefits with your healthcare provider, in addition to non-hormonal options.
Know Your Family History
Family history can be an important topic to discuss with your physician when determining your risk of developing breast cancer. But determining what you need to disclose and how far back you need to go in your family tree can be tough.
Iyengar says important family history to disclose includes:
- Breast cancer in 2 or more 1st and/or 2nd-degree relatives, especially if diagnosed at a young age
- Anyone in your family diagnosed with male breast cancer
- Breast and ovarian cancer on the same side of the family, such as multiple people on your maternal or paternal side
- A 1st or 2nd-degree relative with breast cancer diagnosed on both sides of the family (maternal and paternal)
- Breast cancer combined with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
Your doctor may also ask how old your relative(s) were when they were diagnosed (specific age or best guess), what stage they were diagnosed at and if they are still living.
If you have a family history of breast cancer, particularly in first-degree relatives (mother, sister, daughter), you may be at a higher risk of developing the disease.
Additionally, genetic testing may be considered to identify specific gene mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which significantly increase the risk of breast cancer.
While this list is not exhaustive, it can provide a good jumping-off point. Checking your breasts regularly for any changes, keeping up with your regular screenings and consulting with a trusted physician for individual risk factors and additional measures you can take can go a long way toward early detection and lowering your risks.
Nervous about your first mammogram? You’re not alone. Learn what to expect.
To schedule a mammogram at a Texas Health facility, visit TexasHealth.org/BreastCare. Early morning, evening and Saturday appointments are available at most locations.