Live a Healthy Lifestyle
Understanding your personal level of risk is the first step. Next up: learning how to reduce that risk through lifestyle choices and other risk-reduction strategies.
Simple, Everyday Choices for Risk Reduction
There are easy things we can all do to lower our risk, starting with leading a healthy lifestyle. Your 20s and 30s are the ideal time to start adopting new habits that can reduce your lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancer, so give the following lifestyle choices the consideration your body deserves. And these risk-reduction steps can benefit women at all risk levels. They apply to everyone!
While all of these activities can help reduce your breast and ovarian cancer risk, they do not eliminate it completely. Keep the tips in mind as you create a comprehensive plan, which should also include early detection.
Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial— there is a clear link between obesity and breast cancer because of the excess estrogen produced by excess fatty tissue. You’ve heard it before, but we’ll tell you again: being active is key. 30 minutes of regular exercise, enough to get your heart rate up or to break a sweat, on most days may reduce your risk by as much as 10-20%. Plus, it has lots of other benefits like lowering your risk for heart disease and reducing stress.
Eat Well, Live Well
Research has shown that the food you put in your body has a direct link to your health. Fill up on cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables, make sure you get all your vitamins, and avoid red meat—research has shown a 12% increase in breast cancer risk per 50g of red meat consumed on average each day.
Certain foods can actually help decrease your risk of developing cancer. These cancer-fighting foods are not only nutritious—they are usually inexpensive and a natural way to take action and manage your health. Here’s what to look for when you head to the grocery store:
Foods that provide Vitamin D, like fatty fish, fortified milk, beans, eggs, and nuts.
Low-fat foods—research shows a modest decrease in invasive breast cancer in women with a low–fat diet.
Vitamin A reduces risk for those who have a family history of the disease. Look for carrots, sweet potatoes, dried herbs, and leafy greens.
Vitamin E has been clinically proven to slow the growth of cancer cells in the ovaries by reducing the production of telomerase, a ribonucleoprotein that can increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Fill up on leafy greens such as swiss chard, spinach, and kale, as well as nuts, wheat, and tropical fruits.
Fiber is a rich nutrient found in whole grain, flax, certain cereals, beans, and vegetables shown to reduce estrogen levels—which in turn can slow the growth of cancer cells in the breasts. Consider swapping white bread with whole grain, white rice with brown, and sugary cereal for one rich in fiber and the vitamins listed above.
Fruits and vegetables carry the vitamins and nutrients that can help lower your risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Aim for at least five servings a day—try to include lots of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, and dark, leafy greens like kale and spinach.
Research shows a 12% increase in breast cancer risk for every 50g of red meat consumed on average each day.
Especially Vitamin D
Vitamin D is known to help reduce the incidence of breast and ovarian cancer by slowing the growth of cancer cells. Research shows a 2.5x increase in breast cancer in individuals with a Vitamin D deficiency, and a possible increase in ovarian cancer risk. Have your Vitamin D levels checked at your primary care physician’s office. If your levels are low, talk to him or her about the best ways to get those levels up – it can be surprisingly hard for those of us who live through long, dark winters inside, because the sun is our primary and best source of Vitamin D. If your levels are low, try to take in the sun in small doses (sunscreen will block production of Vitamin D) and also ensure that your diet or a Vitamin D supplement provides the rest. Fatty fish (such as salmon) is a good dietary source of Vitamin D, as can be milk, fortified cereal, orange juice, and eggs.
Cut back on cocktails. Research shows a 10% increase in breast cancer risk for every 10g of alcohol—that’s one standard drink—consumed on average each day. Limit alcohol to one drink per day or eliminate it entirely.
Research shows a 10% increase in breast cancer risk for every 10g of alcohol consumed on average each day.
This one is simple, for a variety of reasons! There’s a known link between tobacco and many cancers (not just lung or other oral cancers). If you do smoke, commit to quitting today.
Having Children and Breastfeeding
A woman’s childbearing history also influences her risk of developing both breast and ovarian cancer. Pregnancy transforms and stabilizes the cells that comprise milk-producing glands and ducts, so the earlier this transformation happens, the lower the risk of breast cancer. Some studies have shown that women with first pregnancies under the age of 30 have a 40-50% lower risk of breast cancer than women who gave birth later or who were never pregnant.
Pregnancy can also reduce your risk of ovarian cancer by eliminating some ovulatory cycles and therefore the number of chances for ovarian cells to “go rogue” during cell division.
Breastfeeding can also play a role in risk reduction strategy. If it makes sense for you, breastfeeding for 1-2 years—not necessarily consecutively—lowers your risk for both breast and ovarian cancer by decreasing estrogen levels and the number of times you’ll ovulate over the course of your life. It also may reduce a female baby’s overall risk of developing breast cancer later in her life.
Taking Birth Control
In addition to preventing pregnancy, studies have shown that oral contraceptives (birth control pills) can help prevent ovarian cancer. Taking birth control pills for 5 years—even non-consecutively—in your 20s and 30s can reduce your ovarian cancer risk by nearly half.
You may have heard that taking birth control can increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Many studies have shown that the increased risk of breast cancer risk related to birth control pills is very low—if it exists at all—temporary, and not associated with the most common, low-dose estrogen pills. The protective benefits of birth control pills when it comes to ovarian cancer risk are greater than the very slight associated increase in breast cancer risk.
That said, the decision to take birth control pills is a very personal one and there may be reasons why they aren’t the right choice for you. Your doctor can help you weigh the potential risks and benefits of using oral contraceptives to optimize and individualize your own proactive breast and ovarian health plan.
The chemicals in our environment play a role in altering our biological processes. We now know that exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation are connected to our breast cancer risk. Get to know the chemicals that have been linked to breast cancer and learn about what you can do in terms of personal, corporate and political action to limit your exposure, thereby reducing your risk of breast cancer.
Using oral contraceptives can reduce your ovarian cancer risk by nearly half.