Breast Cancer Prevention

You can lower your risk by adopting a healthy lifestyle

You’ve heard a lot in the last few years about genetic/hereditary causes of breast cancer. Those of you without a family history may be breathing a sigh of relief. Not so fast. Four out of five women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease, says Dr. Cheri L. Coyle of The Center for Women’s Health in Newport News. The good news is there are steps you can take to lessen your risk.

“A lot of people think, ‘I don’t have a family history so I’m not at risk,’” Coyle says. “That’s what I hear all the time—‘I’m not worried about my mammograms because I don’t have a family history.’ But 80 percent of women who get breast cancer don’t have any family history.”

The better news? The health changes you make to decrease your risk of breast cancer also will improve your overall health, Coyle says. Exercise at least moderately three to four hours a week. “If you are active and exercising, you have less risk of obesity,” Coyle says. “Estrogen in fatty tissues causes an increased risk of breast cancer in post menopausal women. I tell my patients any exercise is better than none. You’ll improve your overall health and well being by exercising. Exercise is good for the entire body and soul.”

Improve your diet. Of course that will help control weight too. “There certainly has been some evidence that increased fat intake in this country is tied to an increase in breast cancer,” Coyle says. “If we had a more Asian or Mediterranean diet, that would decrease the risk of breast cancer.” Studies link obesity to a number of cancers, including breast cancer, according to The National Cancer Institute.

Limit alcohol use to moderate. Although one alcoholic drink per day may help boost heart health, more than one alcoholic drink a day increases breast cancer risk, Coyle says.

Even women who reported low levels of alcohol use—three to six glasses of wine per week—showed a 15 percent increase in developing breast cancer while those who drank at least two drinks daily showed a 51 percent increase in developing breast cancer compared to women who never rank alcohol, according to an analysis of women enrolled in the Nurses Health Study who were followed from 1980 through 2007.

Stop smoking or better yet, never start. Long-term smokers face a 20 percent higher incidence of breast cancer, according to studies referenced at

“Smoking probably has the biggest risk associated with most cancers,” Coyle says. “There is an increased risk with cancer in general and definitely with breast cancer as well.”

Keep getting regular mammograms. The American Cancer Society recommends women over 40 get mammograms every one to two years. Women over 50 should get a mammogram every year, Coyle says.

Tip: schedule your mammogram for a time when you’re not immediately premenstrual or otherwise experiencing breast tenderness, she says. Even though mammograms are picking  up more breast cancers, keep doing your self-breast exams too, Coyle advises.

“Think about the fact that you know your breasts better than anyone else,” she says. “Look for anything that stands out from the rest of the tissue. If you notice this doesn’t feel right, this is a change for me, this is a thickening, I never had this before—those are all things we as physicians can’t ignore. We have to take it seriously.”

The good news: “Over the past couple of decades, we’re diagnosing a lot of breast cancers earlier,” Coyle says. “The fact that fewer people are dying from the disease proves the population is taking it more seriously.”