Prevent Breast Cancer at Every Age

 In Culture, Guide

5 Ways to Help Prevent Breast Cancer

Over 9,000 women in the U.S. under age 40 will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. In time for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we called on cancer prevention and control expert Dr. Kate Wolin with the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program, who shares the no-nonsense facts to help you avoid being one of them.

1. There’s more to your breastcancer risk than genetics.

Many women think that breast cancer is mostly genetic; in actuality, only about 5 to 10 percent of breast-cancer cases are just genetic. There are many other risk factors women should be aware of, like ethnicity—white women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer, but black women are more likely to die from it. Women who have denser breast tissue have a higher risk. The number of menstrual cycles a woman has over her lifetime increases her risk, due to increased estrogen exposure. So the later you get your period, the more children you have (more pregnancies = fewer periods) and the earlier
you go through menopause, the lower your risk. It’s important to talk with your doctor about the appropriate preventative measures that are best for you.

2. Small changes make a big difference.

New studies show that even small changes in weight gain during adulthood can increase your risk of developing breast cancer, making it crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle with physical activity (as little as 2.5 walking hours per week is proven to reduce your risk), a reduction of alcohol intake (consuming less than one alcoholic beverage a day lowers your risk) and practicing healthy eating habits.

3. For every fact, there’s some fiction.

The Internet is rife with myths about antiperspirants, bras, breast implants and abortion being related to higher breast cancer
risk, but there’s no conclusive evidence to support these connections. Most recently, chemical compounds in certain plastics have come under fire for their potential risks, and while it’s certainly not a bad idea to limit your exposure, there is no human data (early testing has been conducted on animals) supporting these claims. The myths can get a lot of press while basic, but important, risklowering actions like regular screenings and healthy lifestyle choices are often ignored.

4. Weighing your individual risk is a must.

It’s important to consider all the stats and
studies in the context of your own life choices and medical history. For instance, some data suggests that women have a slightly increased chance of developing breast cancer while taking birth control pills, but it can also lower the risk of ovarian, uterine and colon cancers if taken for five years or more. Your doctor can help you determine what’s best for your individual set of circumstances. Other risk indicating tools—like Washington University School of Medicine’s new online Your Disease Risk (— collect the latest scientific evidence to factor your individual risks and give personalized tips for preventing them.

5. More screening options are available, especially if you’re at high risk.

Improved screening tools for at-risk women are changing the meaning of early detection. For instance, the digital mammogram uses sophisticated software programs to help read images and improve accuracy, especially for women with dense breasts. The MRI is an early-detection screening option reserved for women with a family history of breast cancer and can detect problems earlier (the downside is a high false-positive rate), and allows doctors to do an MRI-guided biopsy on-the-spot in appropriately equipped facilities. Genetic testing (screening for genetic tumor markers BRCA1 and BRCA2) is another new development that should be done in
discussion with your clinician based on your specific family history and circumstances.

Dr. Kate Wolin, ScD, is a member of Siteman Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program and is a behavioral epidemiologist and Assistant Professor of Surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine. The goal of her research is to inform cancer risk reduction and survivorship through physical activity promotion and obesity control.


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