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October 24, 2016

3 Ways to Cut Your Breast Cancer Risk

by Amanda MacMillan

It’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means you’ve probably seen lots of tips lately for reducing your risk of the second most common cancer among women. (Skin cancer is first.) You may even be feeling a little overwhelmed. What you want to know is: Which habits can really make a difference?

That depends in part on your individual health history and risk factors, which you should discuss with your doctor. But almost everyone can benefit by taking three simple steps, says George Raptis, MD, acting executive director of the Northwell Health Cancer Institute. They’ve been shown slash breast cancer risk by double digits. And there’s a bonus: They also help you stay healthy overall.

1. Get to a healthy weight.

Carrying extra weight around is one of the biggest risks factors for breast cancer after menopause. In one 2015 study, women in the “severely obese” category (such as a 5’4” woman who weighs about 205 pounds) were nearly 60 percent more likely than normal-weight women to be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.

The healthiest way to lose weight is through a combination of diet and exercise. Eating more whole, plant-based foods (and fewer high-fat and high-sugar processed foods) is a great place to start, says Raptis.

Not only will this eating style help you stay at a healthy weight, it also seems to be protective in other ways. “Fruits and vegetables -- besides tasting good -- contain antioxidants, which appear to decrease the risk of several cancers,” says Raptis.

2. Start moving -- at least 30 minutes a day.

Staying active throughout the day can protect against both pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer. In fact, a number of studies have found that women who are particularly active are about 25 percent less likely to get breast cancer than women who are sedentary.

To get the biggest benefits, make sure you’re getting at least 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, like gardening or brisk walking, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity, like running or Zumba. (A leisurely stroll won’t cut it.)

“Exercise that gets your heart rate up will decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and several types of cancer,” says Raptis. Find something you enjoy doing and that fits into your schedule, he recommends, so you can make it an everyday habit.

3. Drink alcohol moderately or not at all.

When consumed on a regular basis, even small amounts of alcohol increase a woman’s chances of developing of breast cancer. A little alcohol doesn't add much risk, but the more you drink, the more your risk increases. Having three drinks a day, for example, raises a woman’s risk by 50 percent.

“You don’t have to stop drinking, but it’s important to minimize your routine alcohol intake,” Raptis says. “And if you don’t already drink, there’s no need to start.” Like most large health organizations, he recommends that women have no more than one alcoholic drink a day.