A new study finds that Caucasian women who are at genetic risk of breast cancer could reduce their likelihood of developing cancer by making certain lifestyle choices.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University and the National Cancer Institute have conducted a review of over 23,000 white woman between the ages of 30 to 80 who are considered at “high risk” for breast cancer. Specifically, they examined how likely these individuals are to develop breast cancer based certain factors.
On average, a 30 year old woman has around an 11 percent chance of developing some form of breast cancer by the time she is 80 years old, the study says.
Some of that risk appears to be due to non-changeable factors like a family history of cancer or certain genes — for example, BRCA1 and BRCA2 — that seem to predispose people to breast cancer, as well as certain reproductive issues. These combined factors raise the chance of developing breast cancer to 23.5 percent on average, with even higher risks for some people.
However, until now it hasn’t been clear how much a woman can modify her own risk by making certain lifestyle choices.
Researchers looked at national survey data and cancer rate studies to investigate how cancer risk changes with different lifestyles. They examined variables, such as onset of puberty, to create models that would allow them to chart likely risk. The LA Times published a great summary of this methodology.
In the journal “JAMA Oncology,” the researchers found as much as 29 percent of annual breast cancer cases could be avoided if women were able to modify all of the changeable risk factors they identified. In terms of individual risk, they found that lifestyle choices could cut breast cancer risk by a modest, but still significant, 11 percent.
Why does this matter? We repeatedly hear that hereditary factors and factors we can’t control often predict cancer risk. However, this research tells women who are at high risk of breast cancer that there are, in fact, behavioral changes they can make in order to cut those risks.
While this certainly does not mean that women can completely protect themselves, this messaging may help women reclaim their health because cancer isn’t inevitable. It’s, in part, preventable.
Researchers found four major changes that women can make in order to modify their risk.
1. Lower your BMI
While BMI is not a reliable health indicator for individuals, there is a significant body of research showing that people who are classed as obese on the BMI scale tend to have a higher risk of developing a range of health problems, including cancers.
This research found that women with lower BMI were, on average, less likely to develop breast cancer. This aligns with previous research that linked obesity to higher rates of post-menopause breast cancer cases. For most people, BMI can be lowered by eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and exercising.
2. Stop smoking
In pre-menopausal women, smoking can significantly raise the risk of developing breast cancer. This research also suggests that refraining from smoking can cut breast cancer risk.
Some research identifies heavy smoking as a factor in the development of more aggressive forms of breast cancer.
3. Cut down on alcohol
This study corroborated previous findings that alcohol intake can increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Previous research has shown that consistently having just three alcoholic drinks per week can increase the risk of developing the disease by 15 percent.
Teenagers who binge drink also appear to significantly raise their risk of developing non-cancerous breast lumps.
4. Think carefully about menopause hormone therapy
Hormone therapies — often estrogen-plus-progestin – increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Hormone therapy may also reduce the effectiveness of mammograms as a screening tool. The important thing here is not to rule out MHT, but to discuss with a doctor. From there, it’s about determining if, given an existing breast cancer risk, hormone therapy is right for the individual.
You may wonder why white women were only used for this study. As with many health studies, race and its socioeconomic impacts can change risk likelihoods. As a result, these findings may not translate to the wider population.
It’s also crucial to state that this study hinged on the predictive power of genetic and fixed risk factors prior to examining lifestyle factors. Those so-called fixed risk factors are less powerful than previously thought. This will need to be the subject of future research.
Still, these results have been generally welcomed. Researchers not connected to this study stated that the risk assessment method could have wider applications for helping people understand what they can do in order to take some control over their cancer risk.
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