Truths and myths about breast cancer risk
You’ve most likely seen all the pink things that help bolster awareness of breast cancer, from ribbons to football gloves, t-shirts to socks.
One powerful cancer-fighting tool for women is something that doesn’t have a color. That something is knowledge about how to reduce your risk of breast cancer. Although understanding the risks for cancer and controlling them can’t ensure you won’t develop breast cancer, controlling your risks can reduce your chances of developing the disease.
The American Cancer Society lists these known lifestyle-related breast cancer risks:
- Drinking alcohol: This lifestyle choice also increases the risk of other cancers. The more alcohol a person consumes, the greater the risk of breast cancer. One drink per day results in a very small increase in risk. However, if you have two to five drinks per day, the risk is about one and a half times more than a non-drinker. For health, you’re advised to limit drinking. A drink is considered 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. If someone in your life needs assistance reducing drinking, professional help is available.
- Being overweight or obese: The risk of breast cancer is greatest after menopause. Before menopause, most of your body’s estrogen is made by the ovaries. After menopause, it’s made by fatty tissue. The more fatty tissue you have, the more estrogen you have, and that can increase your chances of breast cancer. Another factor that affects breast cancer risk is where your body fat collects. Fat around your waist may boost your risk more than fat around your hips and thighs. Your best plan is to maintain a healthy weight throughout your life.
- Lack of physical activity: We’re continuing to learn more about the positive effects of exercise. If you’re a couch enthusiast, consider that 75 minutes of brisk walking each week can cut your breast cancer risk by 18%. Walk more and reduce your risk more. The American Cancer Society recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. It’s best to spread it throughout the week. Moderate activity makes you breathe like you would on a brisk walk. With vigorous activity, your breathing is faster. Activities such as yoga, stretching and weightlifting are also beneficial for your health. A range of options are available to help you get active.
- Having no children or having a first child after age 30: If you don’t have children or have them later in life, your risk of breast cancer is slightly higher.
- Using birth control: Use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills) slightly increases risk of breast cancer. When the pill is no longer used, the risk returns to normal (or baseline) over time. Women who stopped using oral contraceptives more than 10 years ago appear to have no increased risk. Another form of birth control known as Depo-Provera (depot-medroxyprogesterone acetate or DMPA), a form of progesterone given once every three months, appears to increase risk in current users. However, if past users discontinued DMPA use more than five years ago, their risk for breast cancer returns to normal (or baseline) over that time.
- Using hormone therapy after menopause: To relieve menopause symptoms (and help prevent osteoporosis – bone thinning), women are sometimes prescribed estrogen and progesterone. This is called combined hormone therapy. This therapy can increase the risk of breast cancer. If this therapy is suggested for you, visit with your health care professional to discuss potential risks and benefits.
The following are NOT breast cancer risks. Let’s dispel some falsehoods about cancer risks. We have no scientific evidence that links breast cancer risk to:
- Antiperspirant use
- Induced abortion or miscarriage
- Breast implants
If you have questions about your breast cancer risks, visit with your health care professional. We encourage all women to continue with the mammogram schedule your health care professional recommends.
Learn more about your breast cancer risk by taking a free, quick, health risk assessment. Click here.
About the Author
Judy A. Tjoe, MD, is a surgeon who specializes on breast disease at Aurora Comprehensive Breast Care Center in Milwaukee, WI.