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Breast Cancer: New Ways to Beat the Odds

Written by Jane Donald on March 24, 2014. Posted in magazine article

pink-ribbon-breast-cancer-awareness-poster-c12330381There’s a lot of advice out there. Some of it is right on target — but some isn’t. Here’s the latest on what really works.

That’s how headlines about breast cancer have been coming at us over the past year. Every study seems to contradict the last. Many of us wonder what — if anything — to believe. Actually, you can believe a lot. Behind the blare of headlines lies a deepening understanding of breast cancer. If the reports seem confusing, it’s because experts are realizing more and more that recommendations about prevention, detection, and treatment need to be individualized. Some guidelines apply to every woman, but many don’t. What’s right for you? Here, the advice you need now.

Prevention: What Really Helps
You’ve probably heard the statistics: Over a lifetime, about one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer. But seven out of eight will not.

Why the difference? Researchers can reel off a list of risk-raising culprits, but pinpointing exactly which ones forever shift the course of a life isn’t yet possible. And even if it were, there are some risks that you can’t eliminate — being female, for example, growing older, family history, flawed genes.

But you can still lower your odds, says Michael J. Thun, M.D., head of epidemiological research at the American Cancer Society. “The steps you have to take aren’t always easy,” he acknowledges — something that new research shows as well — but the payoff can be significant.

Move It (Faster! Harder!)
Swimming laps, doing aerobics, jogging — women who engage in strenuous activities like these at least five hours a week, and have done so for most of their adult lives, are 20 percent less likely to develop invasive breast cancer than are sedentary types who get no more than 30 minutes of exercise a week, reports the California Teachers Study, which has been tracking more than 110,000 women ages 20 to 79 since 1995. But the report yielded encouraging news for less-active women: Moderate workouts, like golf or walking, cut the odds of developing one form of breast cancer (estrogen-receptor-negative) for which there are fewer effective treatments.
Action plan: This study is the latest of many to show the benefits of vigorous exercise. Shoot for 45 to 60 minutes of heart-thumping workouts five days a week. Too hard? Start with brisk walks and work up.

Watch the Wine
Women who have more than two drinks a day increase their risk of invasive breast cancer by 43 percent, compared to those who don’t drink at all, researchers from the large Women’s Health Study recently announced. Lighter consumption is healthier, but risk still inched up by 9 percent among women who averaged just under one drink a day.
Action plan: There’s no way to soft-pedal this: If you really want to minimize your risk of breast cancer, don’t drink at all, advises Dr. Thun. Other experts say that if you do drink, make it an occasional treat.

Restock the Fridge
Two large-scale studies this year showed that food choices do affect breast cancer risk. The National Institutes of Health–AARP Diet and Health Study found that postmenopausal women whose daily diets average 40 percent fat — a very high percentage — raise their breast cancer risk 11 percent compared to women whose diets include a lean 20 percent fat. The other study, from England, found that postmenopausal women who eat about 4 or more ounces of red meat daily are 56 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who never eat any meat. (Red meat includes beef, pork, and lamb.) Processed meats like bacon, ham, and sausage have an even greater effect, raising risk to 64 percent.
Action plan: Diet studies like these may not be the last word, because so many other factors can confuse the issue. In any case, dietary fat and meat have less impact on breast cancer risk than your weight gain in adulthood — experts agree that obesity actually doubles your odds. So paring off extra pounds makes more sense than fussing over red meat ratios. Make fat no more than 30 percent of your daily intake, choose healthier mono­unsaturated over saturated or trans fats, add whole grains to your diet, and enjoy meat occasionally and in small portions. Fish, beans, and tofu are protein-rich substitutes for meat. And eat colorful (red, yellow, green, orange) cancer-fighting fruits and veggies in supersize portions.