Breast Cancer: Managing Your Risk

Candy Arentz, MD
Houston Methodist
West Hospital

When it comes to breast cancer, certain risk factors are out of your control. Yet even more risk factors are within your control, and every day new research is emerging that suggests breast cancer may be more preventable than experts originally thought. “Women can take steps to mitigate their risk of developing breast cancer and increase their chances of survival if it occurs,” said Dr. Candy Arentz, breast surgeon at Houston Methodist West Hospital.

Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of breast cancer:

Be (Really) Physically Active

The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these), preferably spread throughout the week. “Exercise is a huge factor when it comes to reducing a woman’s risk of breast cancer,” Arentz emphasized. “Exercise decreases the levels of insulin and estrogen in the body. Some studies estimate a 10–15 percent risk reduction with moderate exercise.” Doctors think the exercise-estrogen link may account for the reduced risk. Here’s why: The greater your lifetime exposure to estrogen, the greater your risk for breast cancer.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Being overweight increases your risk of developing a variety of serious diseases, and breast cancer is one of them. Obese and overweight women produce more estrogen and tend to have higher insulin levels, both of which are linked to an increased breast cancer risk.

Limit Alcohol

In addition to exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting alcohol to three or less alcoholic drinks per week can lower a woman’s risk. Compared with nondrinkers, women who consume two to five alcoholic drinks a day have about 1.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer. “Alcohol may change the way the body processes estrogen. Since most breast cancers are responsive to estrogen, alcohol may increase the risk of developing breast cancer,” Arentz said.

Choose to Breastfeed

Arentz encourages new mothers to breastfeed their babies if they’re able. “Evidence suggests that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer,” she said. “We know that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the greater the protective effect.” The reasons why aren’t clear, but one possible explanation is that women who breastfeed have fewer menstrual cycles throughout their lives, and thus less exposure to estrogen.

Genetic Testing and Intervention

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, talk with your doctor about whether genetic testing is right for you. Mutations in certain genes, such as the BRCA genes, increase the risk of breast cancer. Women with this gene mutation may opt for more frequent screenings, chemoprevention or prophylactic surgery (breast removal). Removing the ovaries and fallopian tubes is also an option; in addition to reducing the risk of ovarian cancer, it could help prevent breast cancer.

Early Detection is Key

There are several ways to help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer, but early detection is still most important. Getting regular mammograms catches breast cancer early while it is still treatable.