October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  The Susan G. Komen organization estimates that there will be more than 276,000 new cases of breast cancer in women in the United States this year.  Although it is rare, men can also get breast cancer and should tell their doctor about changes in breast tissue.   About one percent of breast cancer cases in the United States are in men. 

While the cause of breast cancer is unknown, it is important to utilize what we do know to minimize risks.  A risk factor is anything that can increase your chance of getting a disease.   There are several risk factors for breast cancer – some you can change and some you cannot change. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top risk factors for breast cancer are being a woman and being above 50 years of age.  These are factors we do not have control over.  Other risk factors that we cannot change are a family history of breast cancer, previous radiation therapy to the chest area, women or children of women who were given the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) which was used between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage, and dense breast tissue.  On a positive note, there are several risk factors that we can change to reduce risk of breast cancer. 

  • Physical Activity.  Being physically active reduces the risk of getting breast cancer.  Being physically active also has other added health benefits such as helping us maintain a healthy body weight and reducing stress as well as lowering our risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
  • Body weight.  Being overweight, especially after menopause, increases breast cancer risk. This is because after menopause, most estrogen is produced by fat tissue.  The more fat tissue you have, the higher the body’s level of estrogen and also insulin levels.  Elevated estrogen and insulin levels are associated with increased risk of breast cancer.  If overweight, a good way to reduce calories is to cut back on sugary beverages. 
  • Nutrition.  The American Institute for Cancer Research reports that a diet rich in plant-based foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans reduces risk of all types of cancer, including breast cancer.   Plant-based foods are high in phytonutrients.  “Phyto” is the Greek word for plant.  Phytonutrients are natural chemicals found in plants that may help prevent disease and protect the body.  It is estimated that there are more than 25,000 known phytonutrients in plant foods.  Examples of phytonutrient groups are carotenoids, flavonoids, glucosinolates, and phytoestrogens.  Each of these groups may contain hundreds of different types.  For example, there are more than 600 different carotenoids that give fruits and vegetables their characteristic yellow, orange, and red colors.  Both the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Dietetic Association offer recipes and suggestions for increasing consumption of plant-based foods and phytonutrients. 
  • Hormones.  The topic of hormones is complex and should be discussed with a physician, since each individual’s circumstances and family history are unique.  However, in general the American Cancer Society reports that combined hormone therapy (the use of progesterone in combination with estrogen) for women who still have a uterus, increases the risk of breast cancer.  Studies have shown that the use of estrogen therapy alone (for women who do not have a uterus) causes no increased risk or only a slight increased risk of breast cancer. 
  • Breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding your children, is not only the best option for your baby, it lowers your risk of developing breast cancer, especially if breastfeeding is continued for one year or more.  The exact reason for this is unclear but may be related to reducing the number of menstrual cycles over a lifetime. 
  • Drinking alcohol.  Drinking alcohol is associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer.  The more alcohol consumed, the greater the increased risk.   The American Cancer Society reports that women who consume one alcoholic drink per day increase their risk of breast cancer by seven to ten percent compared to women who do not drink.   Women who have two to three alcoholic drinks per day have a 20 percent higher risk than women who do not drink.  It is recommended to not drink, especially if you have a personal history or a family history of breast cancer.  If you do choose to drink, limit it to no more than one drink per day. 

While there are no guarantees, a lifestyle of healthy foods and regular physical activity can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.   A healthy lifestyle can also improve your chances of a full recovery should a diagnosis of breast cancer occur.   Experiment with preparing seasonal fruits and vegetables you may not have tried before.  Increase your physical activity by getting outdoors to enjoy the beautiful colors and mild temperatures of the fall season. 

References and Resources:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2020).Reduce Breast Cancer Risk.  Retrieved from: https://www.eatright.org/health/diseases-and-conditions/cancer/reduce-breast-cancer-risk

American Institute for Cancer Research (n.d.).  Serving Up Better Health.  Retrieved from: https://www.aicr.org/cancer-prevention/healthy-eating/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020).  What Are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer? Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/basic_info/risk_factors.htm

Susan G. Komen (2016).  Facts for Life:  Breast Cancer in Men.  Retrieved from: https://ww5.komen.org/uploadedfiles/_komen/content/about_breast_cancer/tools_and_resources/

fact_sheets_and_breast_self_awareness_cards/breastcancerinmen.pdf 

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