2007-10-31 / Family

How you can reduce your risk of breast cancer

By Katherine Houstoun

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly has been linked with a decreased incidence of breast cancer.
This year the National Cancer Institute predicts more than 178,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in women. Though there's no way to ensure that you won't develop breast cancer, women can take steps to lessen their risk of becoming a statistic.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the first step in prevention, as with so many other diseases or ailments.

"The adage of 'eat right and exercise' really will do patients well, not only with breast cancer but heart disease and colon cancer and other things that can be related to a sedentary lifestyle," said Dr. James Pellicane, a breast surgeon at Bon Secours Cancer Institute at St. Francis Medical Center.

Eating right includes keeping a balanced diet, high in fiber, with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and few "bad" fats like saturated and trans fats.

"High fat diets and being overweight certainly contributes to breast cancer, and that has to do with estrogen that's made in fat cells," explained Pellicane. "The circulating levels of estrogen can be increased in people that are obese, giving them a higher risk of breast cancer."

The link between estrogen and breast cancer becomes important when factoring in hormone replacement therapy as well.

"A study came out a few years ago that showed that being on hormone replacement for a prolonged period - over two years - started showing an increased risk of breast cancer - a mild, but definitely solid increased risk," said Dr. Ruth Felsen, a breast surgeon with the Surgical Associates of Richmond. "That makes sense because a lot of breast cancers have proteins on them called receptors that respond to estrogen or progesterone. We treat breast cancer with anti-estrogen medication, so it makes some sense that there is some interplay between hormones and the risk of breast cancer."

Cutting out smoking and limiting alcohol intake are also important in breast cancer prevention. And, of course, early detection is key to diagnosing and treating breast cancer successfully.

"The physical examination, self-exam and mammogram are the mainstays of breast prevention," said Felsen.

Woman with no family history of breast cancer and no additional risk factors should receive a breast exam from a physician once a year and start having yearly mammograms at the age of 40. Women who do have a family history or risk factors should start mammograms at a younger age, sometimes as early as 25, depending on her doctor's recommendations.

"Family history is something you cannot control," said Dr. Michael Rose, the medical director of surgical oncology at the Thomas Johns Cancer Hospital. "The thing that you can control if you do have a family history is to be cognizant of your situation and react accordingly."

Self breast exams allow women to be in control and aware of their bodies and what is happening within them.

"Self breast exams should start early," said Pellicane. "Women should start doing self-breast exams early on in life and get used to doing it every month after they start their period."

If you find you haven't been keeping up with any of these recommendations, this month, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is a good time to be assertive and make some changes.

For more information on breast cancer screening, including how to do a self breast exam, visit, click on "Symptoms & Diagnosis" and then "Screening and Testing."

Breast cancer statistics

Breast cancer accounts for nearly 1 in 3 of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. women.

During 1998-2002, 95 percent of new cases of breast cancer and 97 percent of breast cancer deaths occurred in women ages 40 and older.

In 2007, an estimated 180,510 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in women and men in the U.S. Of those, an estimated 40,910 will die from the disease.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, aside from skin cancer.

While breast cancer does occasionally occur in men, it is 100 times more common among women.

About 2.3 million women in the U.S. are currently living with a breast cancer diagnosis.

Breast cancer death rates are going down. This decline is probably the result of early detection and improved treatment.

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