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Your Lifestyle Choices May Put You at a Higher Risk for Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer and Lifestyle

Runners and walkers raise money for races, athletes flaunt their pink shoes and jerseys, and women across the country are reminded about ways to reduce their risk of breast cancer.

Every October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is full of recognition, awareness, and, of course, the color pink. As the second most common cancer among women in the US after skin cancer, breast cancer is a disease that cannot be ignored.

Breast Cancer By The Numbers:

In The United States...

  • Roughly 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime.
  • In 2020, over 325,000 new cases of breast cancer are estimated to be diagnosed in women.
  • In Pennsylvania, female breast cancer has the highest rate of new cancer cases among all types of cancer -- and the second-highest rate of cancer deaths.

From being a woman to getting older to having a family history of breast cancer, there are many breast cancer risk factors that are completely out of your control. However, there are plenty of risk factors that are in your hands — and Breast Cancer Awareness Month is the perfect time to reflect on how to protect yourself from this disease.

Here are 5 lifestyle choices that put you at a greater risk for breast cancer.

1. Drinking Alcohol

Cheryl Williams, CRNP, RNFA
Nurse Practitioner at Penn's Women's Specialty Center

"While the occasional glass of wine or cocktail is okay, frequently consuming alcohol can increase your risk of breast cancer. Alcohol can increase your levels of estrogen and other hormones that are associated with certain types of breast cancer. In addition, alcohol can damage the DNA in your cells, which increases your risk of cancer," says Cheryl Williams, CRNP, RNFA, Nurse Practitioner at Penn Women's Specialty Center.

This risk increases the more alcohol you drink. For instance, women who have one alcoholic drink a day — including beer, wine, and liquor — have about a 7% to 10% increased risk compared to those who don't drink. Women who have 2 to 3 drinks a day have a risk that's roughly 20% higher than non-drinkers.

The safest approach is to avoid alcohol entirely. If you do choose to drink, limit your alcoholic beverages to just one a day.


2. Being Overweight

Before you go through menopause, your ovaries make the majority of your estrogen, and only a small amount comes from fat tissue. After menopause, however, your ovaries no longer make estrogen, and most of it comes from fat tissue. As a result, having more fat tissue after menopause can increase your estrogen levels and your risk of breast cancer.

Plus, women who are overweight often have higher blood insulin levels — which has been linked to some forms of cancer, including breast cancer.

For women who have already had breast cancer, being overweight can also increase the risk of cancer coming back.

"The best way to maintain a healthy weight is to balance food intake and physical activity. Maintaining or losing weight as you get older can be challenging, but, along with guidance from your healthcare provider, purposeful changes to your diet and physical activity can go a long way," adds Williams.


3. Smoking

Along with many other diseases like lung cancer and heart disease, smoking can increase the risk of breast cancer, especially in younger, premenopausal women. In fact, women who have ever smoked are 14% more likely to develop breast cancer compared to those who never have.

In addition, heavy second-hand smoke exposure can raise the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

The number one way to limit your risk is to avoid smoking entirely. If you do smoke, talk to your healthcare provider about quitting. There are many resources and support systems to help make the process more manageable.


4. Taking Hormone Medications

Hormones such as estrogen and progesterone are closely linked with breast cancer. Some forms of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) — which is used to ease menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and fatigue — can raise your risk of breast cancer if taken for an extended period.

Also, some birth control pills have also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

Just as with any healthcare decision, it's important to have a conversation with your healthcare provider to determine what's best for you. Together, you can weigh the risks and benefits of taking hormones, including appropriate dosages and length of use.


5. Certain Reproductive Choices

Having a child is a highly personal decision and it requires a significant amount of consideration. When it comes to breast cancer, however, having your first pregnancy after age 30 and never having a full-term pregnancy may increase your risk.

On the other hand, having a full-term pregnancy before age 30 may actually help lower your risk for breast cancer. When breast cells are first made during adolescence, they are immature and very active. A full-term pregnancy when you're young makes breast cells mature completely and develop in a more regular way, helping to protect you against breast cancer.

In addition, breastfeeding can lower your risk of breast cancer — especially if you do it for longer than one year. This may be because breastfeeding lowers the number of menstrual cycles you have, which reduces your estrogen levels and risk of breast cancer. Also, when your breasts are making milk all day every day, the cells aren't able to "misbehave" and change as much as they might otherwise.

Decisions related to reproduction and breastfeeding are complex and personal. Some women may not choose to have a baby, others might wait until they are older, and others would like to get pregnant but have trouble doing so. Similarly, breastfeeding is not for everyone.

It's important to make the best decision for your individual situation. And remember — there are plenty of other ways to lower your risk of breast cancer that are not related to pregnancy.


Other Possible Breast Cancer Risk Factors

Every day, healthcare professionals learn more about breast cancer, and critical research continues to provide insight into how to avoid the deadly disease. Some lifestyle factors that may increase your risk but still need further investigation include:

  • Low vitamin D levels
  • Exposure to artificial light at night (such as working the night shift)
  • Eating unhealthy foods, such as those that are high in fat
  • Exposure to chemicals, such as those found in food, cosmetics, gardening products, and plastic


Top-Notch Medical Care and Informed Personal Choices: A Powerful Combination

Thanks to advancements in prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment, death rates from breast cancer have been dropping nearly 2% every year for the past 10 years. In order to reduce your own risk of breast cancer, it's essential to take advantage of screenings like your annual mammogram, maintain regular appointments with your provider, and pay attention to your body.

However, your day to day choices also play a crucial role in your breast health. Whether it's swapping fries for a salad, putting down the cigarette, or saying no to that second glass of wine, these small decisions can have a big impact on lowering your risk of breast cancer.

Are you looking for ways to reduce your risk of breast cancer? Call 610-738-2300 to find a primary care provider or breast health specialist near you.



Related Information from Chester County Hospital: