Individuals diagnosed with some form of cancer often ask themselves and their physicians, “Could I have done something to prevent this?”
Women who are concerned about breast cancer also may wonder if they can prevent this potentially deadly disease, wondering if there is a pill, a vitamin, or another method to keeping the cancer at bay. Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to prevent breast cancer. However, there are many different steps to take that may help reduce the risk for cancer or increase the odds that if breast cancer is present, it can be found at a more treatable stage.
There is no exact cause of breast cancer, but many experts agree that certain lifestyle choices as well as genetics can increase an individual’s risk.
A woman’s risk also increases as she ages. When a woman is in her 30s, her risk of developing breast cancer is roughly four out of 1,000. By the time she reaches her 60s, that risk has increased to 37 out of 1,000. Though women can’t reverse the aging process, they can gain a greater understanding of additional risk factors for breast cancer and follow medical guidelines concerning breast cancer screenings. Here are some things to know:
Family history: Having a sister, mother, daughter, or two or more close relatives with a history of breast cancer increases a woman’s risk, particularly if these diagnoses were made when the relatives were under the age of 50. Such women should begin testing for breast cancer at an early age.
Personal history: If you’ve already experienced cancer in one breast or another part of your body, you are at an increased risk of getting cancer again. Breast cancer can turn up in the other breast or even in the same breast as before.
Inheritance of genetic mutations: Individuals with mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are much more likely to get breast cancer, says the National Cancer Institute. The risk also increases for colon or ovarian cancer. In normal cells, BRCA1 and BRCA2 help ensure the stability of the cell’s genetic material and help prevent uncontrolled cell growth. Mutation of these genes has been linked to the development of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. A simple blood test and a genetic work-up can point out mutations in these important genes.
Race: Although Caucasian women are more likely to get breast cancer than black, Hispanic, or Asian women, black women typically are more susceptible to an aggressive type of breast cancer called basal-like tumor. Limited access to healthcare can also increase the risk of cancer fatality regardless of race. (see below photo)
Childbearing age: Women who first gave birth after age 30 have a greater chance of developing breast cancer than women who had children before reaching 30 years of age. Women who have never had children are also at a higher risk. Women who breastfeed lower their risk for breast cancer.
Hormones: Women with a longer span of “high-estrogen years” are more at risk for breast cancer. This includes women who had their first menstrual cycle prior to age 12 and women who still were experiencing menopause after age 55. Anyone undergoing hormone-replacement therapy or participating in estrogen-raising therapies also has a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
While many of these factors are out of your control, there are other risk factors that you can control:
Alcohol consumption: Avoiding or limiting alcohol consumption can lower your risk for breast cancer. Drinking alcohol has been traced to higher estrogen levels in the body.
Obesity: Being overweight can also increase risk of developing breast cancer.
Inactivity: Failure to exercise can increase your risk. That’s because regular exercise and a healthy diet contribute to the body’s defense system, ensuring it is more capable of fending off disease.
Tobacco products: Use of cigarettes, cigars, or chewing tobacco increases your risk for many different cancers.
Infrequent doctor visits: Routine physical check-ups by a general doctor or one who specializes in women’s health can make the difference between an early breast cancer diagnosis, for which treatment is highly successful, or late-stage diagnosis, which is not as easily treated. Those who do not go for screenings put themselves at an elevated risk.
Breast cancer cannot be prevented, but there are many methods to reducing risk factors associated with the disease.