Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer in Canadian women. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, an average of 67 Canadian women are diagnosed with breast cancer every day. Breast cancer death rates in women have gone down in every age group since at least the mid-1980s, thanks to the impact of screening and improvements in treatment. To cut death rates from breast cancer further, it’s vital for women to be aware of the ways in which they can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.
Some risk factors, such as family history, cannot be changed. However, you can make certain lifestyle changes to lower the risk.
Alcohol is a known carcinogen (a cancer-causing substance), so the more alcohol you drink, the more you are at risk of developing breast cancer. The higher the daily consumption of alcohol, the higher the risk. The World Cancer Research Fund recommends no alcohol at all to reduce the risk of breast cancer; if consumed, alcoholic drinks should be limited to one per day.
Research consistently points to a link between smoking and breast cancer risk. In 2009, the Canadian Expert Panel on Tobacco Smoke and Breast Cancer Risk concluded that active smoking increases the risk of breast cancer. Additionally, girls and younger women exposed to second-hand smoke during adolescence are at increased risk of developing breast cancer, because breast tissue may be more likely to be affected by cancer-causing agents during this time, when the breasts are developing at a rapid rate.
Maintain a healthy weight
While no link between a healthy diet and a reduced risk of breast cancer has been proven, it has been established that being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer. This is especially true if obesity occurs later in life, especially post-menopause. A balanced, nutritious diet will help to maintain a healthy weight.
A recent study from Macmillan Cancer Support claims that you can cut your risk of dying from breast cancer by as much as 40 per cent simply by walking a mile a day. Breast cancer patients can also reduce the likelihood of the illness coming back if they follow the same exercise regimen, provided the exercise is of moderate intensity (meaning vigorous enough to leave them slightly out of breath). According to Macmillan, physical activity can also help manage some of the side effects of cancer treatment, such as swelling, exhaustion and stress.
Research carried out in France and published this month in journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found that post-menopausal women — the group in which breast cancer is most common — who had done the equivalent of at least four hours of walking or cycling per week throughout the previous four years were 10 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than those who did less exercise.
Breastfeed your baby
Breastfeeding may play a role in breast cancer prevention, because it is believed to lower the levels of some cancer-related hormones in the mother’s body. The longer you breastfeed, the greater the protective effect. The World Cancer Research Fund endorses the guidelines from the World Health Organization, and UNICEF supports guidance that babies should be exclusively breastfed until they are 6 months old.
What else can I do?
Pay attention to your breasts. Examine them regularly, and if you notice any changes, such as lumps or changes in the texture of the skin, make an appointment with your doctor.