The American Cancer Society recently revised its guidelines for mammography screening, now advising women to get screened later — and less often.
That, plus the flurry of breast cancer awareness promotion every October, raises the question: Aside from taking reasonable steps to identify breast cancer using diagnostic tools like mammograms, what can you do to help prevent the disease?
You can’t do anything about risk factors like your age, sex, race, or family history. But as I wrote a year ago, you can lower your risk in other ways, using 10 specific breast-cancer prevention strategies.
Let’s take a look at five of them in light of newer research findings.
1. Eat More Plants and Less Meat
More specifically, eat more brightly colored vegetables and fruits. Plant pigments called flavonoids have anticancer properties, and people who consume more of them seem to enjoy a reduced risk of breast cancer. Flavonoid subtypes called flavonols and flavones appear to be particularly helpful. Foods containing flavonols and flavones include onions, broccoli, eggplant, celery, lettuce, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, apples, oranges, melons, black tea, coffee, chamomile tea, and many aromatic herbs.
Note that the above list mentions black tea, but not green tea. Both come from the same plant, but they undergo different processing. Green tea, which has a unique flavonoid profile, is thought to contribute to the lower incidence of breast cancer in Asian people. According to laboratory studies, green tea flavonoids act in a number of ways to protect against breast cancer. The Minnesota Green Tea Trial, currently in progress, will evaluate how daily consumption of green tea extract for a year might affect markers of breast cancer risk relative to a placebo.
What not to eat: meat. In October 2015, the World Health Organization announced that accumulated research shows processed meats, such as hot dogs, bologna, ham, sausage, and bacon, cause colorectal cancer. Red meat (beef, lamb, goat, and pork) was classified as “probably carcinogenic.” While the association between meat and cancer is strongest for colorectal cancer, some studies also link processed meat to breast cancer. Some health experts point out that the occasional sausage probably won’t hurt you.
2. Get 300 Minutes of Exercise Every Week
According to reports from the European Code Against Cancer, an initiative supported by the European Union Health Programme to help people reduce cancer risk, physical inactivity contributes to 9 percent of breast cancer cases. People who are more physically active have a reduced risk of breast cancer, as well as other cancers and diseases, such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
In addition, physical activity improves outcomes in people who already have cancer. For instance, an October 2015 study in the European Journal of Oncology Nursing showed that women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer who engaged in an exercise program experienced improved physical and mental health. Physical activity also benefits the quality of life and overall health in breast cancer survivors.
Three hundred minutes of exercise per week is a good target. Pick an activity you enjoy — be it brisk walking, tennis, playing Frisbee, swimming, cycling, dancing, or raking leaves — and do it to the point that your heart rate hastens, and you can talk but not sing. Exercise for 30 minutes four days a week, and on the other three days, exercise for an hour. You can break sessions into 10-minute chunks.
3. Lose Body Fat, Especially After Menopause
One way physical activity may protect against breast cancer is by reducing body fat, which is itself a risk factor for breast cancer — and body fat tends to creep up after menopause. A 2015 study in JAMA Oncology showed that a year-long program of aerobic exercise reduced body fat in postmenopausal women, and 300 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise was more effective at cutting body fat than 150 minutes a week.
To lose weight, you need to either reduce caloric intake or burn more calories. A 2015 study in Breast Cancer Research divided previously inactive, overweight, postmenopausal women into diet, exercise, and control (no intervention) groups. Women in both the diet and exercise groups lost weight, and not surprisingly, exercising resulted in the maintenance of lean mass (muscle and organs) and improved fitness. It also produced greater fat loss and led to a more significant reduction in sex hormones associated with breast cancer.
4. Chill on the Cocktails
Drinking alcohol is tightly linked with breast cancer, and the more you drink, the greater your risk. Overall, imbibers face a 28 percent greater risk of breast cancer, and there is no threshold — that is, even a little alcohol increases your risk. A 2015 British Medical Journal study showed that even light-to-moderate drinking (for example, a 5-ounce glass of wine a day) increased cancer risk (mainly breast cancer) in women by about 13 percent.
Dialing back can cut your risk. Research indicates that for women who have survived one bout of breast cancer, curbing alcohol reduces the risk of recurrence. If you enjoy alcohol, try weaning yourself to sparkling water. If you usually drink every day, make some evenings alcohol-free.
5. Definitely Quit Smoking
Tobacco has long been linked to a variety of cancers, including breast cancer. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that women smokers faced a much greater risk of breast cancer. For those who started smoking before their first pregnancy and continued for more than 20 pack-years (equivalent to a pack a day for 20 years), the risk was 35 percent greater than in women who never smoked. If you’re a smoker, ask you doctor about behavioral and pharmaceutical treatments that can help you quit.
The good news is that all of these lifestyle changes promote general good health and protect against a number of chronic diseases.
What are you waiting for?
Photo: Mike Baird