Can You Lower Your Risk of Breast Cancer?

After skin cancers, breast cancer is the kind of cancer most commonly developed by American women. Worldwide, it is the most prevalent kind of cancer in women, with nearly two million new cases diagnosed each year.8 Roughly 42,000 deaths are attributed to breast cancer annually.7 That’s why October has been designated Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a campaign that takes place around the world every year in an effort to raise awareness about both the pervasiveness of breast cancer and the steps that can be taken to lower the risk of developing this deadly disease.

What is breast cancer?

All types of cancer begin when cells start growing out of control, replicating wildly and hindering the growth and function of normal cells. Breast cancer is no exception to this, and it can begin growing in several different areas of the breast. Depending on the location, a detectable lump may or may not form. The cancer can spread beyond the breast to other parts of the body if cancerous cells make their way into the bloodstream or network of lymph vessels. This event is called metastasis.

Who’s at greatest risk of breast cancer?

The average chance of developing breast cancer is 12.5%, or one woman per every eight.1 Statistically, women over 55 are the most likely candidates for breast cancer, accounting for two-thirds of breast cancer cases. African-American women are at greater risk of developing breast cancer before menopause than white women are.2 Scientists have identified mutations in two specific genes, called BRCA1 and BRCA2, that increase the chance of breast cancer, though they don’t guarantee that a carrier of one of these mutations will develop it. Because gene mutations can be inherited, a person’s risk of breast cancer is two to three times greater if someone else in their family has been diagnosed with the disease.4

While men can develop breast cancer, they account for only 1% of cases. Most of these occur later in life, usually in men who are between 60 and 70 years old.

Individuals with higher than normal levels of estrogen may be more likely to develop breast cancer in their lifetimes. Women who first become pregnant after the age of 30, never carry a baby to full term, or opt not to breastfeed experience greater estrogen exposure throughout their lives and may have elevated risk levels. There may also be a link between the heavy consumption of alcohol and the onset of the disease.

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Research suggests that obesity can increase the risk, as can benign breast conditions classified as proliferative.3 Exposure to heavy radiation may also trigger cells to start multiplying uncontrollably. The occurrence of breast cancer in one breast raises the likelihood of cancer development in the other breast by three to four times.2

What causes its development? How does it progress?

Breast cancer starts when the DNA of normal breast cells becomes mutated, whether due to genetics, lifestyle factors, hormone imbalances, or other unknown causes. While breast cancer starts in the milk ducts in most cases, it can also develop in the glands that produce breast milk. As the cells replicate, they form a tumor and may spread to, or metastasize in, other parts of the body.

Once a case of breast cancer has been detected, it is assigned a stage, from 0 to IV, based on its progression. Each stage requires different treatment strategies, ranging from lumpectomies, to remove only the affected tissue, to chemotherapy and hormone therapy, to aggressively attempt to impede cancer development.

What are the symptoms?

Depending on the stage of a given breast cancer case, it may not present any obvious symptoms. This is why self-checks and screening tests like mammograms are so important, to help identify any irregularities as early on in development as possible. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the greater the chance of successful treatment and the higher the survival rate.

A lump or a mass, usually hard and painless to touch, with irregular edges, is the most common symptom of breast cancer. These conditions are not absolute, however – breast cancer lumps can also be soft, circular, and painful or tender to the touch.5 Swelling and skin dimpling may occur, and pain in the breast or nipple may be experienced. The skin of the nipple or breast may redden, thicken, or become flaky. If the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, it can cause swelling in the armpit or near the collarbone. Breasts may change size or shape, and nipples may change shape or position.1

Any other irregularities should be reported immediately to a healthcare professional.

woman sitting in chair smiling while healthcare practitioner places hand on seated woman's shoulder

Are there effective strategies for lowering the risk of breast cancer onset?

There are no magic bullets for eliminating the risk of breast cancer, but taking charge of your health can positively affect certain factors. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight for your height through a nutritious diet and regular physical exercise can improve health markers and reduce the risk of cancer development.

group of four middle-aged women of varying race smiling and carrying yoga mats while walking through grass field

Abstaining from alcohol consumption is a good idea, as even infrequent and minimal intake can increase the risk. Smoking also predisposes an individual to develop various kinds of cancer, breast cancer included.

Long-term hormone therapy, like HRT or oral contraceptives, can increase cancer risk. Consider talking to your doctor about possible alternatives.

Regular checks and screens won’t lower the likelihood of cancer development, but they can facilitate early detection for faster treatment and a higher success rate. If your family has a history of breast cancer, you might be interested in exploring genetic testing for BRCA 1/2 gene mutations.

Do antioxidants hold the key?

Antioxidants, or more accurately, compounds with antioxidant properties, may play a role in the prevention of cancer by neutralizing free radicals, which are unstable reactive molecules that cause damage to cells. Lifestyle factors like pollution, smoking, drinking alcohol, and consuming fried foods can increase free radical exposure. Natural compounds like vitamins C and E, glutathione, and beta-carotene have antioxidant properties and can defend cells against oxidation, which is the process that occurs when free radicals outnumber antioxidants in the body.6

If left unchecked, oxidation can cause signs of aging to appear prematurely and lead to the damage or mutation of DNA, which can elevate the risk of cancer. Therefore, an adequate intake of antioxidant compounds is essential to preserving balance and keeping cancer risk as low as possible.

Some antioxidants are produced naturally by the body. Others can be obtained from food sources like berries, peppers, citrus fruits, carrots, tomatoes, and green leafy vegetables, as well as a wide selection of dietary supplements. As with many good things in life, however, the excessive consumption of antioxidants can actually cause harmful effects. If you eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet, taking a supplement specifically for its antioxidant content is probably unnecessary.


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*These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.



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