Breast Cancer Prevention

Lower Your Risk

A tremendous amount of promising research is under way to determine the cause of breast cancer and to establish effective ways to prevent it. Still, doctors can't always explain why one woman develops breast cancer and another doesn't.

All of us want to do everything we can to reduce the risk of ever getting the disease. Right now, though, we just don't know enough about what causes breast cancer and we haven't yet figured out how to keep it from happening, so we can't say that we can “prevent” it.

Researchers are working to learn how our “external” and “internal” environments may work separately and together to affect our health and possibly the risk of developing breast cancer.

  • “Internal environment” means the things inside our bodies that influence our health, such as genetics (the genes you got from your mother and father), hormones, illnesses, and feelings and thoughts.
  • “External environment” refers to the things outside of our bodies that influence our health, such as air, water, food, danger, music, noise, people, and stress. It is taken in through the food you eat, water you drink, air you breathe (including whether you smoke or not), and medicines you take.

Some of these factors, such as your genetic makeup and the medicines that you take, have a very direct effect on your breast health. The impact of other, indirect factors, such as air quality, exercise, meditation, and spending time with friends, is less well understood.

Controllable Risk Factors

Risk reduction means making choices to avoid or minimize any possible risk factors that you can. It also means increasing the protective factors in your life so your chances of developing breast cancer are lower. The best defense against breast cancer is a good offense.

  • If you are overweight, seek to lose excess pounds.
  • Make informed choices about the medicines you take.

  • Do a monthly breast self-exam.

  • Get a mammogram every year, starting at age 40. If you had a relative who was younger than 40 when diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will probably recommend that you start this and other breast cancer screening before age 40.

  • Choose a healthy diet and exercise routine.
  • Don't smoke.


If you're currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer or have been treated for breast cancer in the past, eating well is particularly important for you. If you are at high risk for breast cancer, eating well also is important for you.

Most nutrition researchers believe that the healthful compounds in different foods work together to provide health benefits. The benefits of any single food must be evaluated as a part of your whole diet.

Most dietitians agree that a diet rich in plant foods may be healthier than a diet that contains a lot of animal products.

Foods to consider:

People at High Risk

If you have a family history of breast cancer, on either your mother's or father's side, you might have a higher risk for developing breast cancer during your lifetime. The most significant family history is if women in your family were diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 50, if they had breast cancer in both breasts, and if anyone also had ovarian cancer.

Genetics: Some women with a strong family history of breast cancer have inherited a specific gene abnormality that increases their risk for the disease. The Breast Cancer 1 (BRCA1) and Breast Cancer 2 (BRCA2) gene abnormalities are the most common types that are linked to a high risk for breast cancer (as well as ovarian cancer). However, BRCA1 and BRCA2 abnormalities only account for up to 10% of all breast cancers and 7% of ovarian cancers.

The CHEK2 gene may play a role in the development of some breast cancers. Having an abnormal CHEK2 gene may double a woman's risk of getting breast cancer - from the average 14% lifetime risk to about 28%. Some women may have an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene AND an abnormal CHEK2 gene. In that case the abnormal CHEK2 gene does not further increase the risk of getting breast cancer because it is part of the same cell mechanism.

Having a family history of breast cancer doesn't always mean that your risk is increased. For example, if your grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 75, your risk of the disease is probably not increased. Your grandmother was most likely just one of the women who gets breast cancer in advanced age. Breast cancer risk increases as you get older.

Protective Measures for Women at High Risk

Any woman can make lifestyle choices to reduce her risk of breast cancer. If you are at increased risk because of an abnormal gene or a strong family history of breast cancer, you may seriously consider extra protective measures with:

  • Medication
  • Surgery

Some of these options can be combined and some can be used in sequence. In addition, if you're at high risk of breast cancer, your doctor may also recommend these procedures:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) helps screen women who are at high risk for cancer because of a significant family history of breast cancer or an abnormal breast cancer gene and a prior history of breast cancer. Research has shown that MRI scans are better than mammograms and ultrasound in finding invasive cancers early in high-risk women, especially in younger women who tend to have dense breasts.
  • Ultrasound can be used as a screening test along with mammography in woman at increased risk. Ultrasound can be used in a woman of any age to further evaluate a breast thickening or lump. If you're under age 30, your doctor may recommend ultrasound before mammography to examine a persistent area of concern. Mammography is still important.

If you're at high risk for breast cancer, you may need to have some of these screening procedures more than once per year.

Hormonal or Anti-estrogen Therapy

If you are at high risk for breast cancer, you may want to consider taking protective medication. Medicine can reduce estrogen's ability to stimulate the growth of breast cells.

Tamoxifen has been shown to reduce the risk of first-time hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer in pre-menopausal women at high risk. Tamoxifen also reduces the risk of a hormone-receptor-positive cancer coming back in both pre-and post-menopausal women who have already been diagnosed.

Visit the tamoxifen page to learn more.

For post-menopausal women at high risk, both tamoxifen and Evista (chemical name: raloxifene) have been shown to reduce the risk of first-time hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer.

Using tamoxifen and Evista to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women at high risk has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Preventive Surgery Options

The higher a woman's risk of breast cancer, the more likely she is to benefit from preventive surgery. If a woman's risk is estimated to be 80%, it could be lowered to about 8% by preventive breast removal. If her risk of ovarian cancer is estimated to be 40%, it could be lowered to about 8% by preventive removal of her ovaries. Removal of ovaries (without breast removal) in a pre-menopausal woman can reduce her risk of breast cancer by 50%, or half (80% drops down to 40%).

The surgical options — removal of breasts and ovaries — are called “prophylactic,” which means “protective.” If you take these steps, you are doing something that will significantly reduce your risk for cancer in the future (although there is no guarantee). These options are permanent and irreversible.

More information on breast and ovary removal:

Prophylactic Mastectomy
Prophylactic Ovary Removal


Other Useful Information:

* Organic Living
Find recipes, articles, and videos filled with ideas for a healthier diet, household, garden, and more.

* Risk Reduction
Ask-the-Expert Conferences: Learn more about Risk Factors and prevention.



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