July 2nd, 2024
3 min read

Reducing Breast Cancer Risk Through a Healthy Lifestyle

It is well known that having a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce cardiovascular risk. What may be less well known is that having a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce cancer risk as well. Interestingly, cardiovascular disease and breast cancer share risk factors including age, diet, family history, obesity, and lack of physical activity. For women, breast cancer is the second most common cancer after skin cancer and is the second leading cause of cancer death after lung cancer. For this reason, the prevention of breast cancer remains a significant focus of primary care.

While many things are beyond our control, otherwise known as non-modifiable risk factors, there are many things that we can control to help prevent breast cancer, otherwise known as modifiable risk factors. Many may find it surprising just how large of a role lifestyle can play in breast cancer risk reduction. 

When we examine non-modifiable risk factors, or the things we can’t control, we know that genetics account for 25% of breast cancer cases. This means that 75% occur sporadically.  Non-modifiable risk factors include early puberty (under age 12), late menopause (over age 55), nulliparity (haven’t given birth), older age of first pregnancy ( >30 years, greater risk if >35 years), and increased breast density.

Fortunately, there are modifiable risk factors, or things we can control, including obesity, exercise, alcohol, and diet.  In terms of diet, studies have shown that a plant-based diet is associated with a 15% risk reduction in breast cancer. This is also seen with high cruciferous vegetable intake (brussel sprouts, kale, broccoli, etc.).  We also know that reducing weight reduces the risk of breast cancer, with an ideal BMI less than 25. Moreover, alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer by 7-10% in both pre-menopausal and post-menopausal women.  Alcohol consumption before a woman’s first pregnancy may particularly increase risk.  This occurs because alcohol impacts sex steroid hormone levels. Finally, for women who are able, breastfeeding can also reduce breast cancer risk.

 Ultimately, lifestyle has a significant role in cancer risk reduction.  We should all strongly consider maintaining a healthy diet low in fat, yet high in fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish.  We should all aim to do moderate intensity exercise greater than150 minutes/week, avoid smoking, and minimize alcohol intake. Altogether, we can reduce our breast cancer risk with the bonus of reducing our cardiovascular risk as well. 

For more information, check out Cancer Prevention - American Institute for Cancer Research (aicr.org).

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