Women's Health

Is Breast Cancer Ever Preventable?

Is Breast Cancer Ever Preventable?

Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, but there are certain practices that can significantly reduce your risk, even in high-risk women. Many of these practices are easy lifestyle changes for most women. 

Recent evidence shows that breast cancer will affect 1 in 8 women in the United States. The good news is that prevalence seems to be on a downward trend, partly because fewer women in their 40s and 50s are opting to undergo hormonal therapy. This is a known risk factor for breast cancer. It also appears that worldwide awareness and support programs for breast cancer are working.

So, we will examine the factors that made breast cancer one of the most common diseases in the world. 

What Makes Breast Cancer So Common?

Breast cancer most often occurs in women, but can also occur in men. Common risks include a previous cancer diagnosis, family history of breast cancer, early menstruation (younger than 12-years-old), late menopause (after 55-years-old), being childless, and having a first child late in life.

Family history is important in breast cancer because of the role of certain genes. Over the years, researchers discovered the genes that increased the risk of breast cancer. They also learned why some breast cancer cases tend to run in families. These genes are the BRCA1 and BRCA2, which normally work by repairing damaged DNA in cells. Unfortunately, mutations of these genes can cause cancer. Mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 can turn the DNA into a variant that causes affected cells to divide continuously without control and form a cancerous tumor. Ovarian cancer is associated with BRCA1 and BRCA2.

Other Risk Factors

1) Smoking

There are other more important factors, and one of them is smoking. This appears to be the single greatest factor. The risk is higher the longer you smoke, and if smoking first started before your first pregnancy. The risk is also high in women who started smoking before menopause. Scientists still do not know if electronic cigarettes also increase the risk of breast cancer, but they do know that synthetic chemicals in it can cause other kinds of cancer.

2) Alcohol consumption

Another significant factor is alcohol intake. Recent studies show that consuming one drink a day (one standard drink is equal to 14 grams of pure alcohol, found in 12 oz. beer or 5 oz. of wine) significantly increases the risk of breast cancer in women. It seems that a drinking problem, coupled with unhealthy lifestyle choices, can have a great impact on risk.

3) Radiation

Exposure to radiation is another recognized factor. High doses of radiation cause severe damage to the cell’s DNA, usually resulting in cell death. However, in some cells, radiation just "scrambles" the cell’s DNA to a degree that the cell is left alive. However, the damaged DNA may cause a mutation that causes the cell to divide uncontrollably and form a tumor. Radiation also kills cancer cells, but they can increase future cancer risk. That is the reason why external radiation treatment for cancer is done only once.

4) Being overweight

Being overweight and lack of exercise is a long-recognized risk factor for breast cancer. Being overweight means having many fat tissues in the body. Accumulated fat in the body is not simple "fat" anymore because it begins to secrete estrogen on its own. Two out of three breast cancer cases, which are responsive to estrogen from fatty tissues are unneeded, and increases the risk of cancer.

5) High estrogen levels

Estrogen is the hormone that maintains certain physical characteristics in females such as breast size, smooth skin, and wide hips. The ovaries produce all of the body’s estrogen needs. Any addition of estrogen from internal or external sources is harmful and causes breast cancer risk.

6) Hormone therapy

Since we mentioned the role of estrogen in breast cancer, another important risk factor is hormone therapy. In the past, hormone therapy is routinely prescribed to women during their menopausal stage to relieve symptoms. Hormone therapy may have helped aging women avoid bone loss, hot flashes, and vaginal dryness associated with menopause. However, there are many studies showing that extra estrogen from hormone therapy increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer later in life.

7) Some birth control pills

Another source of "extra" estrogen is the use of birth control pills with high levels of estrogen. Most birth control pills used today, called "low-dose" and "ultra-low" dose pills, contain very low doses of estrogen. Older versions of birth control pills contain as much as 150 mg of estrogen, and they cause side effects. Thus, the newer ones that replaced them contained fewer estrogen. The risk of breast cancer is higher in older women who may have had used these older birth control pills during their reproductive years. That fact must not deter anyone from using birth controls pills since newer pills have very low estrogen and do not put users at risk for cancer.

8) Lack of exercise

One of the greatest and most modifiable risk factor for breast cancer is the lack of exercise. There is serious and measurable evidence that women who do not exercise face a significant risk of breast cancer, as well as cancers in the colon and endometrium. Lack of exercise has effects on the hormones and level of inflammation in the body. It also increases the risk of obesity, which is a risk factor itself for breast cancer.

Experts also suggest that night shifts increase the risk of cancer, as it messes up with the body’s natural hormone functions. Current evidence shows an association between the two. However, other factors may be more significant.

Preventing Breast Cancer

Preventing breast cancer relies mainly on lowering the risk factors. It can greatly reduce the risk, even in women with family history and health risk factors. Many of these preventive actions are very easy to do.

Discuss with your doctor if you are pregnant, planning to conceive, plan to breastfeed, or at least, express and store breast milk. Doctors believe that breastfeeding has an important preventive role in breast cancer--the longer you breastfeed, the greater the protection. Experts do not know how breastfeeding reduces cancer risk, but it has been observed over the years.

You can greatly cut your risk by limiting exposure to radiation. Most X-rays and other X-ray imaging procedures such as the CT-scan emit low doses of radiation, and doctors order them only when necessary to limit exposure. Stay away from waste dumpsites, coal plants, cigarette smoke, and incinerators, which emit significant sources of radiation. Contrary to alternative belief, phones, TVs, gadgets, and computer screens do not emit radiation.

Simple healthy lifestyle choices are effective in cutting the risk of breast cancer. Drinking alcohol sparingly and very occasionally will cut your cancer risk, as well improve cognition, focus, and energy levels. There is no need for you to stop drinking alcohol, as not drinking alcohol is not associated with any health benefits or reduction of cancer risk. Limit to an occasional glass of wine, or a half serving of beer, once or twice a month.

You can also cut your risk by dedicating around an hour each day for exercise. Exercise keeps your hormones, particularly those that increase the risks in check. It also cuts down the risk of obesity. Note that brisk walking, playing a physical sport, and doing physically demanding activities all count as exercise. The important point here is the avoidance of a sedentary lifestyle.

Lastly, ask your doctor for other alternatives to hormone treatment. Most doctors nowadays are aware of the risks of hormone therapy and prefer other treatments. If you are using birth control pills, make sure to use newer ones or ask your doctor for ultra-low dose pills.

If your doctor tells you that you are at high risk, you can decide to have a preemptive surgery. The doctor may recommend a preventive mastectomy, which remove one or both of the breasts. In most cases, there will be a reconstructive surgery done to restore your breasts’ appearance and shape. A mastectomy cuts the risk of cancer by 90 percent, and it is recommended to individuals with a strong family history of breast cancer or has confirmed BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations.

Breast cancer is a dreaded life-threatening condition, but fortunately, more and more people are becoming aware of it. Being aware of your health and exercising can reduce the breast cancer risk to you and your family.