October marks National Breast Cancer Awareness Month—and presents a good opportunity to take stock of what we know and don’t yet know about this disease. As of 2020, researchers are still working to fully understand what causes breast cancer to develop in an individual at a certain point in time. In recent years, for example, we’ve learned that only about 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases in the U.S. are related to an inherited gene mutation. Most breast cancer cases are linked to a combination of other factors.
Some factors known to affect breast cancer risk—such as increasing age—lie outside our control. But many are modifiable with simple lifestyle changes. Just one important note before we dive in: While the majority of breast cancer research has focused on women, cancer of the breast or chest area can occur in people of any sex or gender—and pretty much everyone can benefit from living a healthier lifestyle. Read on for a closer look at the research and some actionable takeaways that can help support your wellbeing.
Lifestyle habits that may lower breast cancer risk
Reaching and maintaining a healthier weight
Looking for a “why” to fire up your weight-loss journey? Maintaining a healthier weight may reduce the risk of breast cancer. What’s more, research suggests it’s never too late to get the ball rolling. A 2019 analysis of more than 180,000 women over age 50 found that those who achieved and sustained even modest weight loss—as little as 5 pounds—were significantly less likely to develop breast cancer in the 10-year study period than those who remained at a higher weight. These findings track with earlier studies showing that weight gain in adulthood—particularly after menopause—increases the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer.
Getting regular physical activity
Women who engage in regular physical activity have a 10% to 20% lower risk of breast cancer than women who don’t, research suggests. And not to worry if running marathons isn’t your jam: One 20-year study of more than 95,000 women found that as little as 30 minutes of brisk walking each day was associated with a lower incidence of breast cancer—even among subjects whose lifestyles were sedentary prior to menopause. If you’re new to working out, some simple steps can help you start and stick to a fitness plan.
Limiting alcohol intake
There’s good reason to keep tabs on your cocktail count: Many studies have found that routinely drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing breast cancer. In one large analysis, women who averaged two or three alcoholic drinks per day had a 20% higher likelihood of developing breast cancer than women who didn’t drink. Such potential harms of alcohol use are one reason the 2015–2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend low limits for adults who do partake—one drink or less per day for women, two drinks a day max for men. Here are some tips to consider for support in scaling back.
Steering clear of cigarettes
While findings on smoking have been mixed, some evidence suggests that smokers past and present may be at a modestly increased risk of developing breast cancer compared with people who have never smoked. Even among smokers, though, that risk doesn’t seem to be one-size-fits all: Smokers in one large study who lit up fewer cigarettes and/or smoked for fewer years were less likely to develop breast cancer than heavier, longer-term smokers were. Given that smoking harms nearly every organ in the body and is a well-established cause of many other cancers, there are health benefits to quitting the habit at any age, notes the National Cancer Institute.
Enjoying lots of fruits and veggies
Studies show that eating a diet high in whole fruits and veggies may slightly decrease the risk of certain breast cancers. A 2012 analysis, for example, determined that women with high blood levels of carotenoids, the natural orange-red food pigments found in melons, carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash, were less likely to develop the disease than women with lower circulating levels. According to the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy pattern of eating includes a variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes, starchy—as well as whole fruits. Aim for at least 2½ cups of veggies and 2 cups of fruit each day, those guidelines advise.
Limiting saturated fats and trans fats
Just to clarify: Most studies have shown no link between a general high-fat diet and an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Still, the types of fats we eat—rather than the total amount of fat—may play a role. A 2008 study of nearly 320,000 European women pointed to a slight correlation between breast cancer incidence and a high intake of saturated fat, which is abundant in foods such as red meat and full-fat dairy. (Red and processed meats may pose other concerns, as well.) Trans fats, frequently found in baked snacks and other processed foods, are another type that may raise breast cancer risk. While dietary fats undergo further study, consider opting for the healthy unsaturated fats found in foods such as nuts, seeds, olive and canola oils, avocados, and fatty fish.
With the understanding that no one has complete control over whether they develop breast cancer, know that a healthy lifestyle may make a difference in reducing risk while supporting your wellbeing in a multitude of other ways. Being physically active, achieving and maintaining a healthier weight, limiting alcohol, and eating a diet high in nutritious fruits and vegetables are changes that can benefit your health at any point in time.
Susan Brown, MS, RN, is the senior director of health education at Susan G. Komen®. Prior to joining Komen, Brown worked as an oncology nurse.
Susan G. Komen® is an organization that works to save lives by investing in breakthrough research to prevent and cure breast cancer and by meeting critical community needs. Learn more about breast cancer, including risks and warning signs, at komen.org. To help support Komen’s mission to end breast cancer, click here.