There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer but there are small steps all women can take to help reduce their risk. These are outlined on this page.
Be a healthy weight
Being overweight or obese after menopause increases the risk of breast cancer. The female hormone oestrogen can help breast cancer grow. After menopause, most of the body’s oestrogen comes from fat tissue. Having more fat tissue can increase your risk of getting breast cancer by raising oestrogen levels. In addition, women who are overweight tend to have higher levels of insulin, another hormone. Higher insulin levels have also been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer.
To reduce your risk, keep a healthy weight for your height. Try to reduce your intake of sugary and processed foods and eat more fruit and vegetables. If you are overweight, set yourself a realistic target for weight loss such as ½ lb / .2kg a week.
The relationship between exercise and breast cancer has been extensively studied by researchers worldwide. Most studies indicate that physically active women have a lower risk of developing breast cancer than inactive women; however, the amount of risk reduction achieved through physical activity varies widely (between 20% and 80%).
Although most evidence suggests that physical activity reduces breast cancer risk in women both before and after menopause, high levels of moderate and vigorous physical activity during adolescence may be especially protective. While ideally women should be active and exercising regularly throughout their life, women who increase their physical activity after menopause may also experience a reduced risk compared with inactive women.
Existing evidence shows a decreasing risk of breast cancer as the frequency and duration of physical activity increase- that is, the more often and longer you exercise, the less your risk of developing breast cancer. Most studies suggest that 30 to 60 minutes per day of moderate- to high-intensity physical activity is associated with a reduction in breast cancer risk.
Research consistently shows that drinking alcohol increases your risk of breast cancer. The more alcohol you consume, the greater your risk. Alcohol can increase levels of oestrogen and other hormones associated with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol also may increase breast cancer risk by damaging DNA in cells.
To decrease your risk of breast cancer, limit your alcohol intake. Women are recommended to have 11 units or less of alcohol a week, and no more than 2 units a day. Try to have days where you consume no alcohol at all. Remember, one drink does not equal one unit. A large wine glass may hold up to a third of a bottle of wine, so a large glass may contain 2-3 units of alcohol.
Smoking is undoubtedly linked to a number of serious diseases, including cancers such as bladder, pancreas, kidney, liver, stomach, bowel, cervix, and ovary cancer. Smoking is also linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in younger, premenopausal women. Research also has shown that there may be a link between very heavy second-hand smoke exposure and breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women.
Women who smoke are also at an increased risk of complications during treatment for breast cancer including damage to their lungs from radiotherapy and difficulty healing after breast surgery. Women who smoke are also at a higher risk of blood clots while taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, stop now. Getting the right support means that you are twice as likely to be successful and quit for good. You can contact the HSE Quit service for free advice. Click here to visit their website. You can also FREEPHONE 1800 201 203 or FREETEXT QUIT to 50100.
Breastfeed your baby
Breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast cancer, especially in premenopausal women.
In a pooled analysis of data from 47 studies which was published in the Lancet in 2002, mothers who breastfed for a total of one year over the total of their lifetime were slightly less likely to get breast cancer than those who never breastfed. Mothers who breastfed for a total of two years over their lifetime got about twice the benefit of those who breastfed for a total of one year. Mothers who breastfed for a lifetime total of more than two years got even more benefit. Although data are limited, breastfeeding for less than one year may also modestly lower breast cancer risk.
The importance of being breast aware
We can help to reduce our breast cancer risk by eating healthily, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation. Unfortunately there is little we can do about some of the other risks, apart from being aware of them. But you can be aware of breast changes to look out for. It is important to attend for breast screening tests with BreastCheck when you are invited.
Watch this short video to learn how to check your breasts: