Breast Cancer Awareness month is coming to a close. Thanks to the efforts of local and national organizations and a number of events in our area, we should all be aware of the importance of education, screening, treatment, and research toward a cure for breast cancer. These are all worthy goals that deserve our full attention and support. Now it is time to take the awareness that we gained over the past month and turn it in to action.
Approximately 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 200,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed and nearly 40,000 women die from this disease each year. Breast cancer can occur in men, but these cases are rare, so the focus is rightfully on women.
Between 20 to 30 percent of cases occur in women who have a family history of breast cancer, which can double the risk of being diagnosed. However, most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history, so there are other factors that play a role. Many of these are lifestyle factors that can reduce the risk for and improve the treatment and survival of breast cancer patients. The good news is that these changes benefit all of us because they also reduce the risk of other cancers, cardiovascular disease, and most other chronic diseases.
1. Avoid tobacco use. While the results of studies of smoking and breast cancer are mixed, a conservative interpretation is that smoking may increase the risk. Smoking increases the risk of other cancers, especially lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer death. Smoking is also a major risk factor for heart attack, stroke and other lung diseases.
2. Consume alcohol in moderation. Alcohol can alter the level of hormones, including estrogen, that increase breast cancer risk. Women should limit their alcohol intake to one drink per day. Women who consume more than two drinks per day increase their risk of breast cancer by 20 percent over women who don’t drink.
3. Maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight can increase the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women by 30 to 60 percent. Excess body fat can alter the levels of estrogen and other hormones. The good news is that losing as little as 10 pounds can reduce this risk. Additionally, being overweight is associated with a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, among other conditions. For these reasons, women of all ages are urged to lose weight if needed to maintain a healthy body weight.
4. Be physically active every day. Regular activity and exercise can lower breast cancer risk as much as 20 percent by reducing the level of certain hormones that are associated with breast cancer. Women who exercise also tend to handle breast cancer treatment better than women who aren’t active and exercise can reduce the risk of cancer reoccurrence by 25 percent. These benefits can be achieved through 45 to 60 minutes of brisk walking five days per week.
5. Eat a healthy diet. The evidence from studies on the effect of diet on breast cancer risk is mixed, with more research needed. In general, increasing fruit, vegetable, and whole grain intake is associated with at least some decrease in breast cancer risk. These “healthy” foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients and eating more of them may also lead to weight loss or prevent weight gain with age.
The bottom line is that turning awareness into action to improve health behaviors can prevent breast cancer and reduce the risk of many other serious health problems.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.