Breast cancer awareness

Breast cancer: How to fight off a killer

October is breast cancer awareness month and Cherrill Hicks sifts through the science to find ways to reduce your risk of the disease.

By Cherrill Hicks
Published: 7:00AM BST 27 Sep 2010

1 Comment

Survival rates for the disease have gone up

Survival rates for the disease have gone up Photo: CORBIS

From freshly ground flaxseed to green-tea supplements, there’s a wealth of advice on preventing breast cancer. But how can we distinguish between half-baked theories and guidance based on decent scientific evidence? Doctors can’t predict who will develop breast cancer, which kills 12,000 women a year. A woman’s individual risk is largely down to factors beyond her control, such as genes, family history and, to some extent, chance. Nevertheless, there’s good research to show taking certain steps can reduce the risk.

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*Stop smoking

Until recently, no definite link had been found between smoking and breast cancer. But recent research suggests nicotine may promote its development. This came from a small laboratory study but if the results are confirmed, it could have implications for nicotine replacement products.

*Limit your use of the Pill

There seems to be a small increase in risk of breast cancer with prolonged use of the contraceptive Pill, although it returns to normal 10 years after stopping. Bear in mind that breast cancer is uncommon in the age group using the Pill: surgeon Lester Barr from the Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Appeal, advises stopping at about 30.

*Weigh up the risks and benefits of HRT

HRT (used for menopausal symptoms) slightly increases the risk of breast cancer within one to two years of use, with the risk increasing the longer it is used. Current advice is to use the lowest dose for the shortest acceptable time and to review treatment regularly with your doctor. HRT also makes breast tissue more dense, making cancer harder to diagnose from a mammogram.


Another personal decision, but one large study of women in 30 countries has shown that the longer you breastfeed, the greater the protection against breast cancer. Breastfeeding is thought to be linked to lower oestrogen levels, or making breast cells more resistant to cancerous changes.

*Have babies early (before 35)

There’s no doubt that bearing children, and having them early in life, reduces breast cancer risk. In one study, women who had a baby before 20 were half as likely to get breast cancer as women who hadn’t been pregnant or who had a baby at 35 or older.

*Cut down on alcohol

A recent, large study showed just one glass of wine a day increases the risk by 12 per cent. The less you drink the lower the risk: a maximum 14 units a week for women (stricter than government limits) is now recommended by Cancer Research UK. A unit is a small (125ml) glass of wine, a half pint of standard beer or one small (25ml) measure of spirits.

*Take regular exercise

In one study, walking briskly for as little as a couple of hours each week reduced the risk of breast cancer by 18 per cent. Just 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, at least five days a week is the current advice.

*Keep to a healthy weight, especially if you’re older

Studies show that being overweight after the menopause increases the risk of breast cancer, probably because at this stage, the more fat you carry, the higher your levels of oestrogen.

*Eat less fat

One US study from 2006 has shown that women who ate a low-fat diet had a reduced risk of breast cancer, while a large European study found that the increased risk is linked only to saturated fats. The jury is still out on whether fried or red meat significantly increase the risk. Eating more plant oestrogens (found in soy and certain vegetables and fruit) may help.

*Be ‘breast aware’

Know how your breasts look and feel at different times and watch for changes that aren’t normal for you. If you’re between 50 and 70, you’ll be offered a mammogram (breast X-ray) every three years; women at high risk will be offered screening earlier and more often.

*Consider gene testing

This may be worthwhile if you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer (if a mother or sister had either under 50, for example). Three out of every 100 breast cancers are caused by a faulty inherited gene and if you are found to carry one, you will be offered early screening for the disease. Make sure you get genetic counselling before having a test.

*And don’t worry about…

…coffee, stress, food additives, pesticides, antiperspirants, underwired bras, abortion or if a breast gets bumped or bruised. There’s no evidence that any of these increase the risk.

The Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Appeal:

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