We’ve all heard of breast cancer. That’s probably because about one in eight, or twelve percent, of women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer in her life. In 2016, this amounts to a predicted 246,600 new diagnoses of invasive breast cancer, and an additional 61,000 cases of non-invasive (in-situ) cases. Men can develop it too—although their chances are much lower, about one in 1,000.
Breast cancer occurs when cells metastasize abnormally. Abnormal cells that develop within the milk ducts are called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), or non-invasive breast cancer. A history of this condition puts women at higher risk for developing invasive breast cancer, which is when cells spread to nearby tissue or move to other parts of the body. This kind can turn into metastatic (advanced) breast cancer.
In the past fifteen years, research has made leaps and bounds in the field, and both risk factors and new treatments have been identified. Some factors that put women at higher risk include age-—as most cases are diagnosed in women over fifty— drinking regularly and lack of exercise. Pregnancy over thirty, never having a full-term pregnancy, or having an early menstrual period all have hormonal effects that increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Similarly, taking certain birth control pills or combination hormone therapy for more than five years after menopause increase the risk of breast cancer. Inherited genetic mutations, such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2, increases risk as well.
The BRCA genes have been identified as important tumor-suppressing genes. When working well, these genes help to maintain breast, ovarian and other cells dividing and multiplying in a normal, controlled way. While everybody carries these genes, only 5–10% of people have inherited a mutation that increases their risk of cancer. About 1 in 500 people carry mutated BRCA1 or 2 genes. If you know that your father or mother carries this, you have a 50% chance of inheriting it. This gene mutation is important to know about, because it greatly increases your risk of breast and other cancers. For example, according to the CDC, 50 out of 100 women with the BRCA1 or 2 gene mutations will develop breast cancer by 70 years old, compared to 7 out of 100 in the general population.
Genetic testing for the gene is now available. If you have a family history of breast cancer, or already know that you have inherited one of these mutations, you may have a higher breast cancer risk. If you do have the gene mutation, recommended preventative measures to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer include taking anti-estrogen medication to reduce the level of estrogen in your body or having a prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy.
Treatment for breast cancer includes some combination of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and/or targeted therapy. Targeted therapy drugs are among the newest developments in the field. These drugs attack only cancer cells, as opposed to traditional therapies, which do not differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells. Targeted therapy also includes drugs that make hormone therapy work better. Targeted therapies have reduced side effects, which should improve quality of life for patients, and have increased survival rates.
In addition to traditional medication and other treatments, studies are looking into dietary and alternative methods that may affect breast cancer treatment success. Cancer.org points out that studies on vitamins B12, B6, folate and omega 3 fatty acids are being completed, although little has been published on this yet. Mayo Clinic describes a number of preventative lifestyle measures that can be taken to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.
Here are some important lifestyle factors to include when developing healthy habits that reduce your risk of developing breast cancer:
Don’t smoke. Smoking has been linked to breast cancer, along with many other health issues. Not smoking is a good choice if you wish to maintain your health.
Limit alcohol. Evidence suggests that the more you drink, the higher your risk of developing breast cancer. The suggested amount is less than one drink a day.
Watch your weight. Obesity or being overweight, especially later in life, is linked to developing breast cancer. It also takes a toll on your heart, respiratory system, circulation, and other aspects of your health.
Be active. An active lifestyle helps to maintain overall health, keep your weight down, and reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. The recommended amount is 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, plus two strength training sessions weekly. That might sound like a lot, but it will pay off long term!
Breastfeed. If you have children, breastfeeding may have an effect on preventing breast cancer. The longer you breastfeed, the better the effect.
Limit hormone therapy. Exposure to hormones, like those found in combination hormone therapies and birth control pills, increases your risk of breast cancer. It is best to limit dose and duration when it comes to medications containing hormones.
Avoid radiation exposure. Studies are still being conducted on this topic, but keep in mind that exposure to radiation is not good for your health. Only get medical tests that involve radiation when absolutely necessary.
While any kind of cancer is scary and all too common, we are lucky that research and treatment continues to advance. To reduce your risk, make an effort to maintain a healthy lifestyle. If you have a family history of breast cancer or other types of cancer, or notice abnormal tissue, see a doctor for a consult.