If you are looking for a simple guide to prevent breast cancer, then this article is for you.
I often visit Quora.com and find many interesting questions that are posted on their by people. One topic that comes up time and again is breast cancer and how one can protect themselves against it.
I thought is would be appropriate to discuss some simple steps that both men and women can take to prevent breast cancer.
Men, you say?
Yes, men can have breast cancer as well. I will discuss breast cancer in men another day, but for now let’s just discuss the general preventative steps against cancer of the breast.
There is overwhelming literature on how to protect yourself against breast cancer. Just a quick Google Scholar search for the term ‘prevent breast cancer’ revealed over 2.5 million results!
This means that there are plenty of clinical studies that have looked at breast cancer prevention. I will try and reference a few here when I can.
As a Bangalorean, I was surprised to learn that Bangalore has one of the highest incidence of breast cancer in women in the country. The highest has been seen in Delhi, followed closely by Chennai.
”How Do I Prevent Breast Cancer?”
Here are some proven ways to help prevent breast cancer.
1. Reduce Your Body Weight
Scientific studies have found that being overweight increases your risk of developing breast cancer. However, it appears that women who are obese and post menopausal are at the greatest risk.
According to the website Cancer.gov, women with a higher body mass index (BMI) have a moderately higher chance of developing breast cancer. In fact, a 5 point increase in your BMI can increase your risk by 12%.
Overall, if you are post-menopausal, then a higher body weight means your risk of developing breast cancer can increase by up to 40%.
Also note that being obese also increase the risk of breast cancer in men.
But why does being overweight increase the risk?
Scientific studies suggest that the fat tissue in the body can stimulate excessive estrogen production. Too much estrogen is a bad thing and can lead to cancer.
In addition to this, the fat cells also release a number of harmful free radicals. These have been shown to increase inflammation and promote the development of cancer.
One particular study found that women who exercise around 225 minutes every week reduce their chances of getting breast cancer significantly. This is because it can effectively burn fat.
As you can see, the fat cells are the ones responsible for cancer of the breast. Therefore, it is important to get rid of this.
If you are looking to prevent breast cancer, then the first thing you must do is lose weight. You can do this through a diet and exercise program, which I will discuss later in this article.
2. Exercise Regularly
Regular exercise should be a part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth. It has numerous health benefits, only one of which is reducing cancer.
Exercising regularly can boost immunity, improve overall fitness and keep your heart and your mind healthy. Combining yoga, cardiovascular exercises and strength training exercises can help prevent breast cancer.
Currently, the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise every week to stay healthy. Doctors across India (including myself) feel that this is insufficient, especially if you are looking to lose weight. Some authorities recommend around 300 minutes a week, which sounds pretty good.
The primary purpose of exercise is to burn excess fat. I discussed earlier how excess fat leads to cancer. Your goal with exercise is to strip off the excess fat.
But remember, this would not be possible if you eating whatever you want and not dieting. Exercise alone is never going to burn fat; you must diet as well.
3. Avoid Long Courses Of Hormone Therapy
It is not uncommon for women to use hormone therapy to manage their post menopausal symptoms. However, using it for prolonged periods of time can do more harm than good.
Menopause occurs at different ages in women, but are often accompanied by the same symptoms. Hot flushes, fatigue, mood swings etc are all part of the process.
However, they can become quite troublesome sometimes and require treatment.
Pre-menopausal women using oral contraceptive pills may want to shift over to copper T or other intrauterine devices.
If you are concerned about any hormonal supplements you are taking, please speak with your gynecologist regarding this.
4. Breast Feed Your Baby
Some studies have found that breast feeding your baby can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. The longer it is carried on for, the lesser is the risk.
It is not very clear as to why this happens.
Some believe that the constant production of milk by the breast tissue prevents it from ‘misbehaving’ and developing into a cancer.
The lower estrogen levels when breast feeding could reduce the risk as well.
Also, it appears women who are breast feeding are a lot more aware of what food they eat. This is because they know that this eventually gets transmitted to the baby. In other words, mothers who are breast feeding their baby eat a lot healthier foods.
It appears the maximum benefit is seen in younger mothers who feed their babies for over 1 year.
5. Limit Your ‘Sitting’ Time
Sitting is not just a risk factor for heart disease. It also has links to breast cancer.
In one particular study by the American Cancer Society, sitting for more than 6 hours can increase the risk of breast cancer (the invasive kind) by 10%.
The best policy is to keep moving. Avoid sitting in one place for more than 2 to 3 hours a day on a regular basis.
6. Check Your Vitamin D
In one study that looked at the link between vitamin D and breast cancer, it was found that almost all women with breast cancer had low vitamin D levels.
Research has also shown that women with vitamin D levels above 50 ng/ml have a 50% lesser risk of developing breast cancer compared to those who have levels of below 30 ng/ml.
Not just that – women with breast cancer already who had low vitamin D levels less than 20 ng/ml were found to have a 94% greater chance of it spreading to other parts of the body.
These facts make vitamin D a very important vitamin to prevent breast cancer.
Correcting vitamin D levels is not really that hard. Spending an hour a day in the sunshine is recommended. However, modern day pollution has made this difficult.
Instead, you may be prescribed supplements to replenish your vitamin D levels.
7. Avoid Stress
Stress can greatly impact our health.
Excessive stress can increase the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It can also affect sleep patterns which also increases cortisol.
There is some belief that increasing stress levels may increase your chance of developing breast cancer. However, this is not solidly proven in clinical studies.
Some believe that lesser sleep is attributed to lower melatonin levels. This may increase the risk overall.
8. Reduce Cosmetic Use
Social norms require that we use cosmetics to look good, but it may be harming us.
Many products that are used in personal care could alter the levels of hormones in the body, increasing the risk of breast cancer.
Chemicals such as bisphenol are present in plastic containers and can be slowly released into the product that they are storing. Bisphenols can increase the risk of cancer.
Just of note – bisphenols are present in plastic bottles as well. Make sure you discard old water bottles (from bottled products like water, soda etc) as re-using them could increase bisphenol levels in the blood.
Avoid using cosmetics all the time. Let people see you for the natural beauty you have!
9. Avoid Radiation Exposure And Pollution
As a part of our health check ups, many of us undergo chest x-rays and other tests that involve radiation.
There is no real need for that, unless your doctor recommends it so.
It is essential to prevent exposure to radiation as much as possible. Make sure you undergo tests such as mammograms, CT scans and other similar investigations only if your doctor suggest you do so.
Chemicals used in household cleaning and for similar purposes could sometimes contain materials in them that could lead to cancer. Try and use these only when needed. Wear appropriate clothing and protective gear when handling these.
10. Stop Smoking
I do not need to advise you on the harms of smoking. But if you decide to light one up once in a while, then you increase your risk of breast cancer significantly.
When you inhale smoke, you inhale many harmful chemicals such as aromatic hydrocarbons and amines. These chemicals can bind to breast tissue.
The binding process leads to a number of different changes in breast tissue that occur due to damage to DNA. Over a period of time, this can lead to breast cancer.
In one study that looked at 40,000 smokers, the outcomes of breast cancer were dire.
Given the other problems associated with smoking, make sure you take the right steps to quit straight away.
There are many risk factors for breast cancer, and understanding each of these can make it easy to prevent breast cancer. Make sure you take the right steps today and live a cancer-free life for years to come!
Please note that I have not included self examination of breasts as a preventive measure. This has now slowly been discarded as a method to detect it early. Also, it is not really a way to ‘prevent’ breast cancer.