Can modifying some behaviors lower your risk for breast cancer?

Jan 25, 2015

Breast cancer is the deadliest cancer for women in the United States. So what are the risk factors for this kind of cancer? And can anything be done to minimize them?

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Ann Partridge discusses how to decrease the risk in the development of cancer. Partridge is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, the founder and director of the Program for Young women with Breast Cancer and the director of the Adult Survivorship Program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

It is difficult to determine which women are more likely to develop breast cancer.

“There are environmental risk factors, like exposure to certain kind of toxins, which people in general don’t have their own ability to change but we can change as a society like get carcinogens out of certain places. Avoid estrogen if it’s not going to help…it can increase risk of breast cancer,” Partridge says.

But there are individual risks, such as weight, that can be modified.

According to Partridge, women, especially those who have gone through menopause, who are overweight, are more likely to develop breast cancer.

“Common sense would dictate that it would be good for those women to lose weight and try and get to what we call is an ideal body mass index for their height and their weight,” Partridge says.

Another modifiable risk is exercise. Women who work out on a regular basis have a lower risk, so the recommendation is that a woman exercises 150 minutes, or more, per week.

According to Partridge, there is no clear answer how being overweight plays a part in breast cancer. However, she says many scientists believe that being overweight has to do with “energy balance.” 

“It’s kind of the input and the output and that’s the diet and the exercise and what you want to do is achieve good balance,” Partridge says.

While it is unclear how obesity plays a part, Partridge thinks it’s due to hormones.

“Women who are overweight often have higher levels of estrogen,” Partridge says. “It probably also has to do with the hormone insulin. Women who are overweight tend to have higher levels of insulin and people who don’t exercise also tend to have higher levels.”

In order to see the health improvements, exercising should be incorporated into daily life. Due to its cardiovascular benefit and prevention of other diseases such as diabetes, Partridge considers exercise to be a “no-brainer.”

According to Partridge, smoking and alcohol also play a part in the development of breast cancer.

“The more one drinks, the higher the risk of breast cancer.” Partridge says. “What most experts recommend is no more than one glass of wine, on average or the equivalent, per day.

According to Partridge, hormones may also may a part in why alcohol is a risk factor for breast cancer.