While you can’t change certain risk factors for developing breast cancer, such as getting older or having a family history, there are a few ways to reduce your risk. “You can add years to your life with a healthy lifestyle,” says M. Michele Blackwood, MD, chief of Section of Breast Surgery at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and medical director and northern regional director of Breast Services for RWJBarnabas Health. “All the things that are good for you in general, such as not smoking, are also helpful for lowering risk.” Here’s what else you need to know about lessening your breast cancer risk:


“Having a family history of breast cancer does increase your risk, but about 90 percent of breast cancer occurs in women who have no family history,” says Blackwood. That’s why it’s so important to understand your individual situation. Personal factors which increase risk include being overweight, having dense breast tissue (which is identified through screening mammography), starting your period before age 12, never having kids, and taking HRT for menopause symptoms.


“No matter what your age, take charge of your own healthcare,” says Ryan Allen Gruner, MD, breast surgeon and assistant professor of surgery, and associate program director of the Breast Surgical Oncological Fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper University Health Care. “Every woman in her mid-20s and older should have a formal risk assessment to help guide us about what kind of screenings you should have and when to start them, as well as whether you would benefit from genetic counseling.” Ask your primary care physician or GYN for a referral to a breast clinic or breast surgeon for a formal risk assessment so you and your doctor can determine a screening plan that’s best for you.


The current recommendation is that for women of average risk to get screened every year. “If there’s one thing I want to emphasize it’s that women should get mammograms every year after age 40,” says Gruner. “If you put off your annual screening because of COVID, make an appointment today. Yearly screenings have been shown to catch cancer in its earliest stages and to save lives.”


Besides annual mammograms, some women, such as those with dense breasts, can benefit from having other tests as well. “Ultrasound is another option in addition to mammography which adds about 5 to 8 percent more knowledge about your breast tissue,” says Blackwood. “This is important because dense breast tissue is an independent risk factor for breast cancer.” Some women may benefit from having an MRI, too, which provides about 30 to 50 percent more information.


Yes, we know how difficult it is to lose weight. But even a 5 or 10-pound weight loss can reduce risk if you’re overweight. If you’re struggling to do it on your own, ask your primary care doctor or GYN for a referral to a weight loss medical professional.


Studies show that moderate to vigorous activity is linked with lower breast cancer risk; moderate means anything that makes you breathe hard, while vigorous means anything that causes increased heart and breathing rates. “The goal is to do sustained exercise for a half hour three to five times a week,” says Blackwood. “But all movement counts, including walking, dancing, even vacuuming.”


Research has shown that smoking is associated with a greater risk of developing breast cancer—one study said there is up to 24 percent increase in current smokers and 13 percent increase in former smokers. “I take a hard stand on this,” says Gruner. “Zero cigarettes are what’s okay. Any type of tobacco use, including vaping, increases breast cancer risk.” If you need help, talk to your doctor about what you can do to kick the habit.


Like most things, too much of anything isn’t good. But even small amounts of alcohol—yes, even wine!—may increase risk. Although no alcohol is best for breast health, if you do drink, limit it to three or four drinks per week, says Blackwood.


Combination hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may also increase the risk of breast cancer. If the benefits of HRT, such as calming frequent hot flashes, outweigh the risks, use the lowest dose that works for the shortest time possible.


Breast cancer research has come a long way in recent decades. “No one wants to hear the word ‘cancer,’” says Blackwood. “But we have made incredible strides in the past 25 years in survival rates, with better imaging, better diagnostic and surgical techniques and better medications. Most of the time, breast cancer is treatable and curable.”

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