What Causes Breast Cancer and How Can I Lower My Risk?

how to lower breast cancer risk

Breast cancer develops when cells in one or both breasts start growing out of control. It can also metastasize, meaning it spreads to other parts of the body. The disease occurs primarily in women, but it can occur in men. 

Why does one person develop breast cancer when another doesn’t? Several factors affect your breast cancer risk. Some you can’t change, but others you can.  

Breast Cancer Risk Factors You Can’t Change

Your chance of developing breast cancer is higher if you have any of these risk factors:

  • You’re over 50.
  • You have specific gene mutations, such as inherited differences in BRCA1 and BRCA2.
  • You’ve had breast cancer before or certain non-cancerous breast issues like lobular carcinoma in situ or atypical hyperplasia.
  • You’ve had more prolonged exposure to reproductive hormones due to having menstrual periods before age 12, starting menopause after 55, or both.
  • You have had a miscarriage. 
  • You have dense breast tissue. 
  • You were exposed to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) used up to 1971 to reduce the risk of miscarriage. 
  • You had radiation therapy to the breasts or chest before age 30. 

Family history is also important. Many women wonder about their risk of breast cancer if their mother had breast cancer. Having close relatives who’ve had the disease does increase your risk. That’s why it’s a good idea to learn about your family history of breast and other cancers so you can discuss it with your doctor.

Does soy increase breast cancer risk?

One risk factor about which there’s confusion is consuming soy. Studies on rodents have found that high doses of compounds in soy called isoflavones increased breast cancer risk in the animals. However, rodents process soy differently than humans. Consequently, soy foods are generally considered safe and healthy. But if you’re thinking about taking a soy supplement, you should discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor. 

Breast Cancer Risk Factors You Can Change

The good news about breast cancer risk is several factors are within your control, including: 

  • You aren’t physically active. 
  • You’re overweight or obese after menopause.  
  • You take certain hormones for more than five years, like hormone replacement therapies.
  • You use certain birth control pills. 
  • You drink alcohol.
  • You’ve been a smoker for 10 years or more.
  • You get pregnant for the first time after age 30.
  • You don’t breastfeed your baby.   

Knowing there are factors you can address to lower your breast cancer risk can provide powerful peace of mind if you’re concerned about your chances of developing the disease.

How to Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk

Take action to lower your breast cancer risk using these strategies:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being active and eating a healthy diet can help you control your weight. 
  • Breastfeed your babies. Breastfeeding lowers your breast cancer risk, regardless of your age when you give birth.
  • Drink less alcohol. Cutting back to one drink per day or abstaining lowers your risk. 
  • Quit smoking. It’s not easy, but quitting lowers your risk of breast cancer and provides other health benefits.
  • Get proper nutrition. Making vegetables and fruits the foundation of your daily diet can help you maintain a healthy weight and get the nutrients your body needs. Some women get more fruit into their diet by making fruit smoothies. 
  • Choose the right dietary fats. There are unhealthy fats (those with omega-6 fatty acids) and healthy fats (containing omega-3s). Consuming less sunflower, safflower, corn, and cottonseed oils and more fish and nuts reduces your risk. 
  • Take up an engaging after-dinner hobby. Nighttime snacking is a habit that makes it hard to maintain a healthy weight. Having an activity you enjoy, like a gentle yoga stretching routine, can help minimize snacking.  
  • Perform breast self-exams (BSE) frequently. While this won’t technically reduce your risk of developing cancer, it reduces your risk of cancer going undetected and becoming harder to treat. 
  • Get regular mammograms. Here again, this practice can help your doctor detect cancer when it’s most treatable. 

When to Contact Your Doctor About Breast Cancer and the Risks

If you have questions about breast cancer or your risk, your Baptist Health physician is happy to answer them. If you don’t have a doctor, you can find one using our online provider directory.

Contact your doctor right away if you notice any of the following symptoms in your breasts: 

  • A lump, hard knot, or thickening tissue
  • Swelling, warmth, redness, or darkening
  • Dimpling, puckering of the skin
  • An itchy, scaly, sore, or rash on the nipple
  • A pulling in of your nipple or other area of the breast
  • Sudden nipple discharge
  • New pain in one spot that doesn’t go away

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