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Eight Ways to Prevent Breast Cancer

Experts issue recommendations

In recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have shared eight ways to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Experts at these centers recommend that women should:

  • Keep weight in check. It’s easy to tune out because it gets said so often, but maintaining a healthy weight is an important goal for everyone. Being overweight can increase the risk of many different cancers, including breast cancer, especially after menopause.
  • Be physically active. Exercise is as close to a “silver bullet” for good health as there is, and women who are physically active for at least 30 minutes a day have a lower risk of breast cancer. Regular exercise is also one of the best ways to help keep weight in check.
  • Avoid too much alcohol. Alcohol can be good for the heart, but when it comes to cancer, there’s nothing good about it, the experts say. Even moderate amounts increase the risk of breast cancer. In general, if a woman takes no more than one drink a day, the overall health benefits of drinking outweigh the risks. Better still, if a woman doesn’t drink, she shouldn’t start.
  • Breastfeed, if possible. Breastfeeding for a total period of 1 year or more (combined for all children) lowers the risk of breast cancer. It also has health benefits for the child.
  • Avoid birth control pills, particularly after age 35, when smoking. Birth control pills have both risks and benefits. The younger a woman is, the lower the risks are. While women are taking birth control pills, they have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. This risk goes away quickly, however, after stopping the pill. The risk of stroke and heart attack also is increased while on the pill — particularly if a woman smokes. However, long-term use also can have important benefits, such as lowering the risk of ovarian, colon, and uterine cancer.
  • Avoid postmenopausal hormones. Women should not take postmenopausal hormones long term to prevent chronic diseases, such as osteoporosis and heart disease. Studies have shown that they have a mixed effect on health, increasing the risk of some diseases and lowering the risk of others. Both estrogen-only hormones and estrogen-plus-progestin hormones increase the risk of breast cancer. If women take postmenopausal hormones, it should be for the shortest time possible.
  • Learn family’s cancer history. Women with a strong family history of cancer can take specific steps to protect themselves, so it’s important for women to know this information. A woman may be at high risk of breast cancer if she has a mother or sister who developed breast or ovarian cancer (especially at an early age) or if she has multiple family members (including males) who developed breast, ovarian, or prostate cancer.
  • Take tamoxifen or raloxifene if at high risk. Taking the prescription drugs tamoxifen and raloxifene can significantly lower the risk of breast cancer in woman at high risk of the disease. These drugs are approved by the FDA for breast cancer prevention, but they can have adverse side effects.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis; October 1, 2014.

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