Put research into action to reduce breast cancer risk

In 2011, an estimated 230,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States according to the National Cancer Institute. Fortunately, with improved treatment fewer women are dying from the disease and research is also showing how Americans can take steps to reduce their risk of breast cancer.

American Institute for Cancer Research’s expert report and its 2009 update concluded that weight control, regular physical activity and limiting alcohol are the foundations of a lifestyle to lower breast cancer risk.

Based on that report, here are concrete steps women can take to positively affect health and make choices that may help lower risk for breast cancer.

A Healthy Weight

Being overweight increases risk.

One of the report’s conclusions was that overweight convincingly increases risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. As a woman’s body weight increases so does her risk. And independent of weight, excess body fat at the waist specifically is tied to higher postmenopausal breast cancer risk.

AICR says greater body fat seems to increase body levels of estrogen after menopause, which is probably one reason too much fat increases risk of estrogen-sensitive breast cancer. Increased body fat also leads to increased levels of insulin and insulin-like growth factors, both of which may increase risk of even estrogen-negative breast cancer.

If you are at a healthy weight now, focus on not gaining additional weight. If you are overweight, try making some small changes to move toward a healthier weight.

Strategies include:

—Weekly weighing on the same day, time and same clothing to monitor changes in your weight.

—Gradually increase physical activity (to lose weight take more steps or move more minutes) that includes both moderate activity such as walking and some strength training to help maintain muscle.

—Fill two-thirds of your plate with fruit, vegetables, whole grains or other plant-based food at every meal. Keep calories low by limiting fried foods, rich sauces, sugary beverages and other foods with added fats and sugars.

Physical Activity

The AICR report convincingly links regular physical activity to lower risk of postmenopausal and probably of pre-menopausal breast cancer as well.

Physical activity potentially protects against breast cancer through strengthening the immune system as well as reducing levels of both reproductive and insulin-related hormones, and through its impact on weight control. Research is clear that activity matters; the question is how much and what types provide optimal protection.

What to do:

—If you are able, walk at least 30 minutes every day. You can do it all at one time or take 2 or 3 short walks throughout the day.

—Find ways to sneak more activity in your day — walk around while talking on the phone, play games outside with your children or grandchildren or do calisthenics (push-ups or jumping jacks) while watching TV.

—Try something new. Take a dance class or get back into that sport or game you used to play.

Limiting Alcohol

According to the AICR report, limiting alcohol is one step that reduces risk of both pre- and postmenopausal breast cancer. Studies show a 5 to 10 percent increase in breast cancer risk with each daily standard alcoholic drink over the course of a lifetime. One such drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or one-and-a-half ounces of 80-proof liquor.

Scientists are still researching how alcohol increases risk of breast cancer. One theory is that alcohol can directly damage our DNA.

What to do:

—Limit yourself to no more than one standard drink per day. (For cancer prevention, AICR recommends not to drink alcohol. However, our expert report recognizes that modest amounts of alcohol may have a protective effect on coronary heart disease.)

—Choose refreshing non-alcoholic alternatives such as sparkling water infused with fruit, or use less wine, for example and make a spritzer.

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