First B of breast health: Be healthy

Health and healthy choices can reduce your risk of breast cancer

Health and healthy choices can reduce your risk of breast cancer

Winnipeg Health Region
Published Monday, September 30, 2013

Regular exercise, a balanced diet and a healthy outlook on life can help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.

These elements contribute to a healthier lifestyle - and the good news is that's a modifiable risk factor, something you can do to reduce your risk of breast cancer.

The great news is that a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer by one-third. According to World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research, that means being a healthy weight; eating a diet emphasizing vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes (dried peas, beans and lentils) and not drinking alcohol or limiting it to no more than one a day on average.

"Essentially, a healthy lifestyle is a cornerstone of reducing breast cancer," says Beth Szuck, Registered Dietitian with the Breast Health Centre.

Studies have shown that a general sense of overall wellness - particularly if boosted by supportive relationships - can help improve a person's health. Research also shows the opposite is true - stress negatively impacts the way your body functions: chronic stress can impact the way your body digests food, if you sleep and how well you sleep, and if your immune system is strong enough to fight off illness.

Why is this so important to know? The emotional stress caused by unhealthy relationships, not getting our needs met or chronic stress can have physical implications.

Research around a field of medicine called psychoneuroimmunology - the science of how emotions impact our bodies - suggests that unacknowledged, unresolved or repressed emotions like anger or grief can have negative health consequences because our immune system is compromised. Research is ongoing in this area.

Common coping choices like overeating, smoking and drinking alcohol to deal with life's stressors not only impact your health, they can increase your risk of breast cancer.

"For many people - particularly women, who are familiar with multitasking and nurturing others, but often much less comfortable with nurturing and caring for themselves - the idea of putting themselves first or even on the list as a priority may feel overwhelming", says Stephanie Howard, Social Worker at the Breast Health Centre.

"Self care from a health perspective is not only critical to our health and wellness. It also helps us be more present for not only ourselves, but our relationships, our responsibilities and our work."

Self care from a health perspective is about ensuring your needs are acknowledged and taken care of. Self care, for example, could be packing a healthy lunch for work the night before or choosing to call a friend for some support after something upsetting happens.

What's important to be mindful of when considering health from a breast health perspective? There are risk factors you can modify and those you can't.

Risk factors you can modify

Maintaining as healthy a weight as possible - along with being fit - can not only help boost your energy level and improve your health, it can help reduce your risk of breast cancer.

Carrying more weight on your body could lead to higher levels of estrogen, which is thought to increase the risk of breast cancer. High insulin levels can affect things that regulate tumor growth and its' role in breast cancer is currently being studied. As well, being overweight can cause low level inflammation which is thought to increase cancer risk.

All foods can fit within a healthy way of eating if consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and combined with physical activity.  Canada's Food Guide is an excellent reference to guide you in choosing healthy foods.

Healthy eating also includes limiting high sugary beverages and foods. Why? Large amounts of sugar and processed foods high in sugar can increase insulin which can increase other hormones in the body, some of which can fuel cancer growth.

"Foods that are high in added sugar are less likely to provide cancer fighting nutrients," says Szuck. "If you eat a healthy diet which includes limiting foods high in added sugar, and are physically active, high insulin levels are less likely to happen. Choose foods containing complex carbohydrates - like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes - they help fight cancer. You want the calories you eat to contribute to good nutrition and a healthier, stronger you.

"There are women who "do everything right" and get breast cancer," says Tania D'Amato, Director of the Breast Health Centre. "There is no guarantee, but these actions can help reduce your risk of breast cancer and increase your overall health."

Non-modifiable risk factors

The two biggest risk factors for breast cancer that we can't change are gender and age. Women are at greater risk for breast cancer than men. And for women over 50, their risk is also greater.

Here are some other non-modifiable risk factors:

  • a family history of breast cancer, especially with breast cancer diagnosed before age 50 in an immediate family member
  • receiving repeated radiation due to the chest due to treatment of a disease (such as Hodgkin's) between 13 and 30
  • having a previous breast tissue sample (biopsy) which showed abnormal cells
  • reproductive factors (starting your menstruation before age 12, never having a  child, being more than 30 years old when your first child was born, or starting menopause after age 55)


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