The outlook for women who receive a breast cancer diagnosis is now better than ever, thanks to advances in research and technology.
There’s also more insight into preventing breast cancer altogether.
“The average woman’s risk for breast cancer is now 13%, or one out of every eight women,” Jayne Paulson, MD, breast surgeon at Spectrum Health Comprehensive Breast Clinic, said. “We have learned about ways to lower those risks even further.”
There are many theories about how to better your odds against breast cancer. While some prove true, others get debunked or remain controversial, Dr. Paulson said.
Here’s what to know:
Exercise: About 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise each week is the ideal goal, Dr. Paulson said.
“Think back to how long it has taken you to develop bad habits,” she said. “Give yourself the time to develop new, good ones.”
Start with 10 minutes a day, with an activity that increases your heart rate—and build on that, she said.
“If your 10,000 steps a day are from just wandering, pick up the pace.”
Weight control: Talk to your doctor about your ideal weight.
“The younger you start to maintain that weight, the easier and better,” she said. “Keep in mind that fatty tissue makes estrogen. And while some estrogen is necessary, too much estrogen can raise your risk of developing cancer.”
Limit alcohol intake: At the very least, Dr. Paulson said, limit your intake. Even better? Don’t drink.
“Even one glass a day can be too much, raising your risk by 5% to 10%,” she said. “Two to three drinks a day can raise your risk as much as 20%.”
Healthy diet: Dietary needs can differ for individuals and vary with health needs. A person with diabetes, for example, requires a specialized diet.
“In general, however, a healthy diet is low fat, high in fruits and vegetables, low in sugars and treats, and low in red and processed meats,” Dr. Paulson said.
Quit smoking: While smoking and breast cancer aren’t necessarily directly linked, smoking is known to substantially raise the risk of many kinds of cancers, Dr. Paulson said.
Soy: Early studies showed that consuming soy could encourage the growth of cancer cells, but later studies appear to show the opposite effect—soy can lower the risk of breast cancer overall or have no effect at all.
“We now feel that soy in moderation is safe,” Dr. Paulson said.
Insulin levels: Studies suggest insulin resistance may contribute to increased risk of developing breast cancer, and a worse prognosis. Becoming physically active and taking steps to establish a healthy weight are important lifestyle changes.
What doesn’t hurt
Deodorant use: “Debunked,” Dr. Paulson said. “We’ve heard the theory that the aluminum in deodorants can lead to breast cancer, but that is simply not true.”
Wearing a bra: “Also debunked. Wear or don’t wear, up to you,” Dr. Paulson said.
What is a must
Mammograms: “Get them done,” Dr. Paulson said. “Every year. That’s the gold standard. When you get your first one can vary depending on your personal risks. But for most women, age 40 is a good time to start. Radiation from a mammogram is insignificant, so that should never be a worry.
“A general recommendation is to continue to age 70, but I have had patients of all ages. So if you have any risks at all, keep getting (mammograms)—at any age.”
Also important to keep in mind: Good health can be achieved at any age.
“So don’t give up on making lifestyle changes,” Dr. Paulson said.
Breast imaging can detect breast cancer, but lifestyles and interventions can help prevent it.
If you’re high risk
Personal risk level can depend on many factors, but family history may not be as strong a determinant as you might think.
“You can have a family history of breast cancer cases and still not be high risk yourself,” Dr. Paulson said. “Fewer than 10% of the patients I see have a genetic link for breast cancer. That’s why your lifestyle habits are so important.”
For those who do face higher risk of breast cancer, help is available at Spectrum Health Betty Ford Breast Care Services, a high-volume center accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers.
High volume means more experienced providers and advanced technologies and cancer therapies—which can mean better outcomes.
“If your risk is at 20% or higher, you are eligible to be seen at our high-risk clinic, where we can help you reduce your risks,” Dr. Paulson said. “We offer alternative options and medications that can reduce your risk level.”
If you are considered high risk, all modalities of breast imaging are available at Betty Ford Breast Care Services. Resources are available through the Spectrum Health high-risk breast clinic, part of the Comprehensive Breast Clinic. There, patients receive an individualized plan for imaging and risk reduction.
Customized breast cancer treatment may include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal therapy, complemented by follow-up care, support groups and other resources.