Breast cancer risk: 6 things you can do to reduce (not eliminate) risk

October 14, 2014 | by Nicole White

The leading risk factor for breast cancer is simply being a woman. The second top risk factor is getting older.


Lacing up sneakers Many breast cancer risk factors, such as gender and aging, cannot be controlled. But lacing up for a walk a few times a week can put a dent in breast cancer risk.


Obviously, these two factors cannot be controlled, which is why all women should be aware of their risk and how to minimize those risks. Many risk factors can be mitigated, and simple changes can lead to a reduction in risk.

1. Know your family history. Have genetic screening if appropriate: The overwhelming majority of breast cancers – about 85 percent – occur in women who have no family history of cancer. However, as many as 10 percent of cases are linked to inherited genetic mutations, such as those on the BRCA1, BRCA2 or PALB2 genes. An estimated 55 to 65 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 mutation and 45 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer by age 70. Women with family histories of breast or ovarian cancer should discuss screening options with their doctor.

If women opt for screening, a cancer risk counselor with training in cancer genetics will be best equipped to interpret test results and guide patients through their options. Identifying a gene mutation will open up more insurance-covered options, including more frequent mammograms and MRI screening.

2. Don’t miss your mammogram. Conflicting recommendations for screening can be confusing. The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms beginning at age 40. Due to concerns over false positives leading to unnecessary and invasive treatments, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening every two years for women ages 50 to 74. The key is risk assessment, said Joanne Mortimer, M.D., director of the Women’s Cancers Program at City of Hope.

“Some organizations have left the screening age at 40 because it’s such a contentious issue. It’s more about emotion than data,” Mortimer said. “Risk assessment is really very critical. We harp on individualized health care, and that means understanding each woman’s risk. At low risk, don’t expose them to radiation unnecessarily. Women at very high risk? By all means they may need mammograms and they may also need an MRI.”

3. Be physically active. Exercise reduces cancer risk for all women – whether obese, overweight or lean. The American Cancer Society recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week, preferably spread throughout the week. A half-hour walk five days a week will do the trick.

5. Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese after menopause increases breast cancer risk. Fat tissue produces estrogen, and having more fat tissue after menopause can increase risk by raising estrogen levels. Women who are overweight also tend to have higher insulin levels – which have been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

5. Limit alcohol intake. Alcohol is clearly linked to higher breast cancer risk – and the more you drink, the higher your risk. Women who consume one alcoholic drink per day have a slightly elevated risk compared to women who do not drink. However, those who consume two to five drinks a daily have 1.5 times the risk of those who don’t drink.

6. Don’t smoke. No study has definitively settled the debate among scientists about the link between smoking and breast cancer. Some studies have linked long-term heavy smoking to higher breast cancer risk. The risk is highest in women who started smoking when they were young. The scientific community is agreed that it contributes to many cancers, including lung cancer – and breast cancer experts recommend quitting to limit risk and for overall health.


Learn more about breast cancer treatment and research at City of Hope.

Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.

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