By DR. GRAHAM A. COLDITZ
Siteman Cancer Center
For a disease as scary as breast cancer, one positive and very important message that deserves to be heard more often during Breast Cancer Awareness Month is that it’s a disease that can be prevented.
Research shows that about half of all breast cancer cases could be avoided with healthy steps most women can take. That translates to around 130,000 fewer cases each year in the U.S.
And it’s almost never too early, or too late, to take steps that can lower risk. The teen and young adult years are ideal, since it’s an important period in growth and development that can have a pronounced impact on cancer risk later in life. Still, healthy habits picked up in midlife and beyond can have significant benefit, too.
Get started with these behaviors, which are also great for the overall health of the entire family.
- Add movement to your days and keep it fun – dance, garden, play or walk. One of the many benefits of regular physical activity is a lower risk of breast cancer. If you’re new to activity – or haven’t done it regularly in a while – take the pressure off and just choose something fun that gets you moving more than you normally would. After a while, you can do more if you want, building up to around 30 minutes of moderate activity a day. For families: Be active together. Walk to the grocery store, play ball in the park or tend a plot in a community garden.
- Skip the alcohol. We now know there’s really no risk-free amount of drinking when it comes to cancer, especially breast cancer. The best choice for your health and otherwise is simply not to drink. Choose healthy, alcohol-free drinks instead, bringing your own to gatherings if you need to. For families: Talk with your children about the risks of alcohol and binge drinking, and don’t center family meals and parties around alcohol.
- Eat more plants. Healthy, plant-based eating has many benefits, including lowering one’s risk of breast cancer. Being plant-based doesn’t mean you need to drop meat altogether. But it does mean adding more whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables to your meals and snacks – and cutting back on meat, especially red and processed meat. For families: Ease into plant-based eating by looking up vegetarian recipes as a family and going meatless one day a week.
- Keep weight steady. We hear so much about weight these days that it’s easy to become numb to its importance to our health. But overweight and weight gain in adulthood increases the risk of at least 13 different cancers. Keeping your weight steady – just not gaining weight – is a great goal that can have big health benefits, even if you’re overweight. For families: Keep high-calorie, low-quality snacks out of the house. Replace things like sugary soda, chips and cookies with fruits and vegetables, air-popped popcorn and fizzy water.
- Stay smoke-free or get smoke-free. We can now add breast cancer to the list of many diseases caused by smoking. So, if you smoke, quitting is the most important thing you can do to improve your health. Visit smokefree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for help. For families: Talk with your kids from an early age about the dangers of smoking – and vaping. And be a good smoke-free role model.
Behaviors like these can’t erase a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer. A lot of different factors come together to cause the disease, many of which are out of a woman’s control. But healthy choices can help lower risk, and that applies to pretty much all women – younger, older, those with a family history of cancer and those without.
And that is a really positive, empowering message.
It’s your health. Take control.
For more ways to lower your risk of breast and other cancers, visit 8ightways.org.
(Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention.)