Lifestyle changes: Stay slim, keep moving and cut back on alcohol
Living a generally healthy lifestyle overall also appears to help lower a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, according to a new review.
The review found exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol could all reduce breast cancer odds.
The report, from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund, is based on an analysis of more than 100 studies. It included 119 studies looking at the relationship between breast cancer risk and diet, exercise and body weight.
Researchers found regular exercise was tied to small reductions in the risk of breast cancer. But risk was elevated among women who drank regularly, even those who consumed a “moderate” one drink a day. And those who were overweight throughout adulthood faced an increased risk of breast cancer after menopause.
The bottom line, said Anne McTiernan, M.D., of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, is that women can take steps to cut their odds of developing the disease.
“I think of lifestyle choices as being like wearing a seatbelt,” Dr. McTiernan, one of the report authors, said. “It’s not a guarantee you’ll avoid injury in a car accident, but it significantly reduces your risk.”
In the United States, on average, a woman has about a one-in-eight chance of developing breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Some of the risk factors for the disease cannot be changed, such as older age or a strong family history of breast cancer. But lifestyle still makes a significant difference. Research shows us more than 50 percent of cancers are preventable with lifestyle choices.
If women take steps to lower their breast cancer risk, they may also reduce the odds of developing other cancers and other major diseases, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The lifestyle changes don’t have to be extreme. The research review found women who were moderately active throughout the day tended to have a lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer.
Overall, women with the highest amounts of daily activity—think: a 30-minute fast-paced walk—were 13 percent less likely to develop postmenopausal breast cancer, versus women with the lowest activity levels. Moderate activity also included housework, gardening and other daily tasks.
Physical activity throughout the day is key. “Once you do your 30-minute walk, don’t spend the rest of the day on the couch,” Dr. McTiernan said.
The study found the risk of breast cancer dropped by 10 percent in postmenopausal women who were the most active when it came to vigorous exercise, compared to the least active. Women who were overweight or obese faced a higher risk of breast cancer after menopause. For every five-point increase in body mass index, the risk of breast cancer rose by 12 percent, McTiernan said.
On the alcohol front, the review found even moderate drinking was tied to increased breast cancer risk: Drinking the equivalent of a small glass of wine each day boosted the odds of breast cancer by 5 percent to 9 percent.
Should you give up that glass of wine with dinner? That depends. If a woman is thin, physically active and doesn’t smoke, the small additional risk from a glass of wine might not matter.
But the calculation changes for a woman with risk factors, such as a strong family history of breast cancer.
The study found limited evidence linking specific diet habits to breast cancer risk. But a handful of studies have connected diets high in dairy, calcium and non-starchy vegetables to a lower risk, the report noted. Foods containing carotenoids—carrots, kale and spinach—have also been tied to a benefit.