As a family physician and medical school professor, plenty of women come to me for advice regarding how they can either prevent breast cancer, or successfully survive breast cancer. They have a legitimate right to be concerned: breast cancer is a common cause of cancer mortality in women.
Here are five ways I tell my patients and my students how they can cheat breast cancer and increase their odds of good health.
#1. IDENTIFY YOUR GENETIC PREDISPOSITION. Having a close relative with breast cancer at least doubles your risk of getting it yourself. Knowing your genetic risk helps plan screening and choice of medical therapies. Your DNA plays a powerful role in whether or not you will get breast cancer. If you are at high risk, aggressive risk reduction and early screening can save your life.
#2. STAY ACTIVE. People who get regular physical activity either through work or through exercise are less likely to die from breast cancer. This may include gardening, housework, weight lifting, swimming, or any other type of physical activity. Staying active is helpful in both the prevention of breast cancer, and in surviving the disease if you get it.
#3. EAT RIGHT. A healthy diet is one that helps you maintain your ideal weight, give you more sustainable energy, and help you prevent and fight disease. Dietary soy may help lower the risk of recurrence for some types of breast cancer, and a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and soy may help prevent the disease. Increased dietary fiber may also help you lower your odds of getting the disease.
An interesting study from the University of Southern California and published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the diet of over 2000 women in Los Angeles County, half with breast cancer and half without. The women who ate a diet high in vegetables, low in meat, and low in starch reduced their risk of breast cancer by about 50%. In this group of women, eating more legumes, fewer meats and fewer starches cut in half a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer! Although the researchers did not prove a causal relationship, this study strongly suggests that diet plays a powerful role in whether or not a woman will get breast cancer.
In terms of dietary supplementation, antioxidants such as vitamin C might help prevent recurrent breast cancer, however watch out because supplementation with carotinoids may have the opposite effect. The protective role of dietary supplements is unclear and the research frequently inconsistent. Nevertheless in most patients I generally recommend a balanced low-dose multivitamin/mineral supplement along with about 250 mg of vitamin C to be taken on a regular, but not daily basis.
#4 STAY UP-TO-DATE WITH ANNUAL PHYSICALS. Annual physicals are not just about having your physician give you a physical and bring your immunizations and screening up-to-date, it is also a chance for you to discuss the latest medical developments. Medical knowledge is constantly changing, and we continue to learn more about breast cancer prevention and treatment as the Baby Boomers age and technology advances. Right now, it appears that a daily baby aspirin may reduce the risk of cancer and cancer mortality, but this might change by next year, or a daily aspirin may not be right for you. The most prudent thing is to do your own research, and in addition consult with your personal physician regarding the latest medical evidence on how to prevent breast cancer.
#5 DON’T SMOKE AND DON’T DRINK TOO MUCH. Any smoking is too much, and more than about one drink a day for women is too much.