One third of breast cancers could be prevented through changes in lifestyle. So, what do you need to do to reduce your risk?
Around 55,000 women and 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK according to Breast Cancer Now.
The greatest risk factors are being a woman and aging – and there’s not much you can do about those, but there are a number of things you do have control over that could significantly reduce your risk. In fact, according to Dawn Mussallem, a lifestyle medicine specialist, breast specialist and Mayo Clinic consultant in Florida, around 33% of breast cancer cases could be prevented if we change our lifestyles.
And, she says, that figure could rise to as much as 50-70% if we start those changes early in life.
In an interview with past president of the the North American Menopause Society, Dr Marla Shapiro, Dr Mussallem said more and more studies were coming out that highlight the importance of lifestyle in breast cancer prevention.
What we can do to reduce our risk?
Top on Dr Mussallem’s list of things that can help you reduce your risk are:
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
According to the British Menopause Society and Women’s Health Concern there will be 23 women out of 1000 aged between 50-59 will get breast cancer. If you have a BMI of over 30 that figure more than doubles to 47 women out of every 1000.
Dr Mussallem says there are a few things about excess body weight that make it a high risk for breast cancer. It may contribute to inflammation and the type of oestrogen that is produced by fat cells may also play a role. And then there’s the raised insulin levels.
“Whenever we eat sugar or processed foods, refined carbohydrates, that insulin goes way up, and it floats around in your body and that’s linked to some growth factors. That is not a good thing when it comes to cancer formation,” she says.
Lastly, Mussallem says, there are studies looking at the role of leptin, a hormones and it;s relationship to carious cancers including breast cancer.
“It’s estimated 12 [types of ] cancers total could be prevented if people were able to attain normal body weight”, she says.
2. Fibre, fibre, fibre
Dr Mussallem says we need to eat 5 serves or fruit and vegetables a day. And she says swap the juices for the whole fruit or vegetable as that’s where the fibre is, and we need about 30 grams of fibre a day.
“The majority of people are so worried about protein. Everyone gets enough protein. We don’t have to be worried about protein but there is a dramatic fibre deficiency in our country. Over 97% of Americans are fibre deficient,” she says.
Eating processed and ultra processed food means we don’t get enough fibre and fibre fills you up, helps reduce cholesterol, and is full of vitamins and antioxidants. Whole grains, nuts and beans are also important.
She has some tips for her patients when shopping.
“I encourage all my patients – when you go to the grocery store, look at that label. The first thing you look at is fibre. If there’s three to five grammes, it’s good but keep looking on that label. Make sure there’s no added sugar. I don’t want added sugar. And the next thing I encourage my patients to do is look at the fat, look at the saturated fat, we want to have fat and saturated fat low and if they see that this product is a little heavier in fat, … it’s a sign that this is an ultra processed food.”
3. Cut back on the alcohol
In fact, if you can cut it out. Dr Mussallem says there alcohol is a class 1 carcinogen and even though it is part of our culture, we really need to cut it right back.
“The World Health Organisation has really taken it down to two standard drinks, which is five ounces, not six or nine, five ounces, once a week.”
A standard drink is 5 ounces – that’s about 150 mls or half a glass.
“Alcohol is a carcinogen so it is in the same category as cigarettes. So when you go to see your doctor your doctor is not saying well, you can have a cigarette on special occasions, so we really should try to avoid alcohol for breast cancer prevention. Bottom line, the American Heart Federation has said that there’s no heart benefit of alcohol,” she adds.
We often think that the biggest risk for breast cancers is our family history but Mussallem says “five to 10% of breast cancers from family history, maybe another five to 10% are from genetics. The majority of breast cancer is just occur. So just because you have no family history, doesn’t mean you can be liberal with some of these things. … 12% of all breast cancer cases have been attributable to alcohol worldwide. That accounts for 115,000 cases of breast cancer a year.”
4. Keep moving
Being active is vital from reducing the risk of many chronic diseases, including breast cancer.
Mussallem says there is no specific anti-breast cancer diet or exericse program and there are no ‘miracle pills’ or supplements that can prevent breast cancer, but sustained changes in lifestyle can may a difference.
She also says the soy is no longer considered to be a risk for breast cancer and that eating it, and eating it early on in life may be protective, studies now show.
“You know, we want people to be physically active. You got to move your body. You got to eat that plant predominant diet that’s rich and fibre, whole grain foods, lots of vegetables and fruits.
“And you know, what’s so exciting is that you can attain your vitality and flourish when you take care of your body – it feels good. It empowers you and it gives you autonomy over any chronic disease you may have and you feel better in the process. So that’s what’s most exciting about what I do – I see my patients just feel in such harmony with life. So it’s really beautiful.”