By Steve Martinez, MD Surgical Oncology
October is breast cancer awareness month. Breast cancer is certainly a disease with which we all should be aware. After lung cancer, breast cancer is the second most common cancer affecting women and is responsible for roughly 40,000 deaths per year. October has traditionally been the month when cancer caregivers take to the airwaves, newspapers, and social media to remind women of the life-saving benefit of having a regular mammogram. And while it is true that mammograms remain the best, and most-studied, screening tool to prevent breast cancer, women who are active participants in their own health should also consider the following lifestyle modifications to lower their risk of contracting breast cancer:
- Maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for the development of breast cancer. Overweight and obese women have more fat tissue than women of healthy weight. In post-menopausal women, this fat tissue can play a role in the production of excess levels of estrogens, potentially leading to the growth of breast tumors that are estrogen sensitive. If you are obese or overweight, consider increasing your physical activity and emphasizing a diet that is plant-based (fruits and vegetables) and low in fat.
- Limit alcohol consumption. The Department of Health and Human Services considers alcohol a carcinogen. In large studies, there is a consistent association between the amount of alcohol regularly consumed and the risk of breast cancer. For women who drink 3 drinks per day, the risk of developing breast cancer is 1.5 times that of a non-drinker. Even those regularly drinking less than one drink of alcohol per day (<10 grams) have a small (7-12%) increased risk of breast cancer.
- Don’t smoke. It is well known that smoking increases your risk for head and neck cancer and lung cancer, causes emphysema, and contributes to coronary artery disease and peripheral vascular disease, but only recently has smoking been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer. The risk is highest in women who start smoking before they have their first child. If you do smoke, stop. If you are not currently a smoker, please don’t start!
- Breastfeeding and breastfeeding for prolonged durations (1-2.5 years) is associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer.
- Limit the use of combination hormone therapy. Combination hormone therapy is the use of estrogen in combination with progesterone or progestin. Studies have shown that estrogen alone does not increase the risk of breast cancer, but combined therapy with estrogen may lead to a 1.7-fold increase in the risk of breast cancer.
Breast cancer awareness month is a time when we remind ourselves of how far we have come towards eliminating this disease and recognize how far we have to go. Oftentimes, the emphasis is on things that health care providers can do, whether it is detection, surgery, medical treatment, or radiation. But breast cancer awareness month is also about the things that women can do to participate in their care and prevent this disease.