04/07/2015 01:22 EDT | Updated 06/07/2015 05:59 EDT

Breast Cancer Prevention: Become Empowered!

Woman Performing Breast Exam
Huseyin Tuncer via Getty Images
Woman Performing Breast Exam

Breast Cancer PreventionIn North America, a woman has a 1 in 8 life-time risk of developing breast cancer. The medical literature and media are filled with articles on early detection of breast cancer through screening and on various treatments for the management of breast cancer. Advances in treating breast cancer have been remarkable, and early detection using mammography has been a huge success, especially for post-menopausal women.

However, there has not been enough emphasis on the prevention of breast cancer. Unfortunately, at present, there are no guaranteed ways to prevent breast cancer, but there are a number of strategies that can significantly reduce one's risk. Let's explore these:

1. Weight:

According to the National Cancer Institute in the United States, many studies have shown that excess weight and obesity are associated with a modest increase in breast cancer for post-menopausal women.  The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation states that post-menopausal women who have higher body weight may have a greater risk of breast cancer. Higher body weight is also associated with an increased risk of recurrence of breast cancer in both pre- and post-menopausal women.

2. Menopause and Weight Gain:

Is it inevitable?

Most women gain some weight once they enter the menopausal years. Some of the weight gain is due to a lack of estrogen, but there are additional reasons for weight gain that can be addressed and altered.

a) Muscle Mass:

With age, muscle mass decreases, which, in turn, decreases metabolism. This can have a significant effect on one's ability to prevent weight gain and also to lose weight.

Solution: Strength training, twice a week. This will help to increase muscle mass.

b) Physical Activity and Exercise:

Many studies have shown that physical activity and exercise can reduce the incidence of breast cancer and recurrence by up to 20 per cent. Studies also report up to a 40 per cent reduction in death due to breast cancer in women who are physically active.

How much exercise, and how often?

The recommendation is 150 minutes or more per week of moderate aerobic exercise (for example, 30 minutes, five times a week or 40 minutes, four times a week) or vigorous aerobic exercise for 75 minutes per week. Adhering to this recommendation will also help to reduce the amount of weight gain that women may experience with menopause.

Increasing physical activity is critical to help reduce weight as well as the risk of breast cancer (and many other diseases). Most experts recommend 5,000-10,000 steps per day. A pedometer really helps to achieve this goal.

3. Alcohol and Breast Cancer:

The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation highlights alcohol intake as a risk factor for breast cancer.

But how much is too much?

The accepted amount of alcohol consumption for a woman is one drink per day. But a recent study from Harvard Medical School showed a 13 per cent increase in breast cancer risk for women who consumed three-six drinks per week.

I believe the message here is -- be mindful of your alcohol consumption, keeping it to a maximum of seven drinks per week, and remember that less is always better, when it comes to reducing breast cancer risk.

People seem to be consuming more alcohol than was the case in previous years, and this appears to increase as individuals move into retirement years. Excess alcohol also leads to weight gain, with both of these being risk factors for breast cancer.

To reduce the risk of breast cancer:

  • If you are at a healthy weight, focus on staying at that weight
  • If you are in the overweight or obese category:

    • work on reducing to a healthier weight
    • be mindful of engaging in sufficient physical activity and exercise, and
    • pay careful attention to your alcohol consumption.


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