Being overweight or obese has been found to increase breast cancer risk, especially for women after menopause, when -- because the ovaries stop producing estrogen -- most of a woman's estrogen comes from fat tissue. (Elevated estrogen levels may raise the risk of breast cancer.) Research also indicates that women who gain weight as an adult are at a higher risk for breast cancer than women who have been overweight since childhood. Regardless, if you are overweight, talk to your doctor or a registered dietician about dietary changes that can help you shed pounds and achieve a healthy body weight. Incorporating daily physical activity is another effective and healthy way to lose weight.
Though studies are at odds on whether or not fat intake is specifically linked to breast cancer, experts do agree that a high-fat diet can lead to weight gain. The American Cancer Society suggests eating a balanced diet that is based on plant foods, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat proteins, while limiting consumption of processed foods and red meats.
Daily physical activity is not only essential for overall health, it also can reduce the risk of breast cancer. According to a study from the Women's Health Initiative, as little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours of brisk walking per week can reduce a woman's risk of breast cancer by 18 percent, while walking 10 hours per week can reduce the risk even more. You also can run, bike, swim, hike and play sports to mix up your fitness routine and stay motivated. Aim for 45 to 60 minutes of exercise or moderate physical activity at least five days per week.
Alcohol consumption is clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer (as well as other types of cancer), and the risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Compared with non-drinkers, women who consume one alcoholic drink a day have a very small increase in breast cancer risk, while women who have two to five drinks daily have about one-and-a-half times the risk of nondrinkers. If you are going to drink, limit your intake to one drink per day.
Research suggests that women who breastfeed their babies may have a slightly lower risk of developing breast cancer, especially if they continue breastfeeding for up to two years. Though breastfeeding for this long is uncommon in the United States, breastfeeding for even a few months is recommended. Experts believe that breastfeeding reduces a woman's risk of breast cancer because it also reduces the total number of menstrual cycles a woman experiences, exposing her to lower levels of hormones related to breast cancer risk.
Research published in the April 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that the sharp decline in the rate of new breast cancer cases reported in 2003 may be related to a national decline in the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT). The study looked at the breast cancer incidence rates and HRT prescription rates after research was reported linking HRT to higher risks for breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, blood clots and urinary incontinence among women using HRT that contained both estrogen and progestin. Talk to your doctor about alternatives to HRT if you are menopausal or reaching menopause and feeling challenged by the symptoms related to menopausal hormone changes.
Though research has not shown smokers to be an increased risk for breast cancer, studies have suggested that high concentrations of secondhand smoke can cause breast cancer in rodents. Further, a 2005 report from the California Environmental Protection Agency concludes that there is a causal association between secondhand smoke and breast cancer in younger, primarily premenopausal women. Since smoking and secondhand smoke are related to other types of cancer and medical conditions, kicking the habit will prove beneficial in reducing your risk of breast cancer as well as improving your overall health.
Scientists are hard at work researching the link between environmental compounds and breast cancer. Of special interest are environmental substances found in lab studies to have estrogen-like properties, which theoretically could increase breast cancer risk. For example, substances found in some plastics, certain cosmetics and personal-care products, pesticides (such as DDE) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) seem to possess estrogen-like properties. A strong link between environmental compounds and breast cancer has not yet been found, but experts suggest avoiding suspect substances to be safe.
In addition to monthly breast self exams, experts recommend that women see their healthcare providers to get clinical breast exams every three years if they're under 40 and every year if they're 40 or older. Healthcare providers can detect changes that women miss when doing breast self exams. They can also provide women with information on breast cancer prevention, taking family history and lifestyle into account. Early detection is crucial in preventing breast cancer from spreading and becoming more challenging to treat successfully.
Breast self exams are an effective way for you to become familiar with how your breasts look and feel so you can be aware of any changes that may indicate breast cancer. Mammograms, however, are the gold standard for detecting breast cancer and are recommended for women starting at age 40, or sooner if a healthcare provider needs to rule out breast cancer due to changes in the breast. Though a mammogram can't prevent breast cancer, it can detect the disease in its earliest stages and prevent it from spreading and becoming a life-threatening condition.
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