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Breast cancer is one of the most daunting diseases in women’s health, as it affects about one in eight U.S. women at some point during their lives. Fortunately, there are several ways women can help prevent the disease.
Lifestyle modifications are the most effective way women can decrease the risk of breast cancer. And while mammograms won’t reduce breast cancer risk, these screening tests can help identify breast cancer at an earlier stage when it is easier to treat and cure.
LISTEN: Dr. Chitalia discusses reducing breast cancer risk in the Medical Intel podcast.
Lifestyle changes to decrease breast cancer risk
1. Eat a healthy diet
Women should maintain a healthy and well-balanced diet that includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals, which protect our cells from damage that could lead to cancer. Whole grains, meanwhile, can help reduce inflammation, which can damage the body’s healthy cells and tissue and weaken the immune system. Eating a healthy diet also provides energy to stay active.
2. Exercise regularly
Exercising has been shown to reduce breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women. We recommend exercising at least 30 minutes a day, four to five times per week. This can be any exercise—from walking to running—that makes you sweat or breathe faster.
Women who exercise regularly and have a healthy diet generally maintain a healthy weight, which decreases breast cancer risk when compared to women who are overweight or obese.
Women who exercise regularly and eat well generally maintain a healthy weight, which decreases breast cancer risk when compared to women who are overweight and obese, says Dr. Ami Chitalia. via @MedStarWHC
3. Avoid tobacco use and secondhand smoke
Smoking is linked to a number of diseases, including a higher risk of breast cancer, specifically in young women who are premenopausal. Furthermore, we’ve seen links between heavy secondhand smoke and breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women, although definitive research is still pending. However, because we know secondhand smoke is unhealthy and is a factor in numerous other diseases, we advise women to avoid it whenever possible.
4. Limit alcohol use
Excess alcohol intake has been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. In fact, compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15 percent higher risk of breast cancer. It’s estimated that the overall risk increases 10 percent for each additional drink women consume daily.
Mammograms and other screenings
Mammograms, or imaging tests used to screen the breast tissue for cancer, are an effective tool to detect breast cancer in its early stages when it is most easily treatable. Screenings typically begin between ages 40 and 45 for women at average-risk, but women with a family history might need earlier or more frequent mammograms. Shared decision-making with a doctor to discuss different screening options is the best approach to personalize a breast cancer screening plan based on a woman’s particular situation.
Breast self-exams (BSE) are an effective way for women to be aware of any changes to their breasts. Women can read tips from the National Breast Cancer Organization on how to check their breasts, so they can report any changes in feeling or appearance to their doctor. Doing BSEs on a monthly basis is a good idea, typically about a week after your period, or when the breasts are the least tender.
We see many women who were referred to us by their primary care provider or Ob/Gyn after they visited them upon finding a lump. The doctor typically makes sure they have a diagnostic mammogram (which gives immediate results) with or without an ultrasound, skipping the screening mammogram (which can take up to two weeks for results) in order to speed up the process of determining whether the lump is cancerous. This has helped us make a diagnosis early and create a management plan.
Experts in breast care
We care for women who seek breast cancer screenings at MedStar Washington Hospital Center with state-of-the-art equipment and imaging techniques, including MRI-guided biopsies, which only are offered at selected imaging centers. Additionally, we offer comprehensive care where a team of breast cancer experts—nurse navigators, radiologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, and medical oncologists— make sure a patient’s experience is as smooth and comfortable as possible.
For the average woman, reducing the risk of breast cancer begins with gaining the knowledge and empowerment to make healthy lifestyle choices. With the guidance and support of a multidisciplinary team of health care providers, women can reduce their breast cancer risk and ensure any cancerous breast tissue is caught early, if it ever develops.