Prevention—by diet, exercise, breastfeeding, and by a new addition to hormone therapy—was a focus of the recent San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. Although there were no “blockbuster” results reported, a prominent English researcher emphasized some of the things that women can do on their own to lower their breast cancer risk.
The hype over a recent breast cancer study
Jack Cuzick, Ph.D., a prominent researcher from England, listed four approaches women can take to lower their risk of breast cancer in general:
Diet and weight
Every kilogram a women is overweight after menopause increases her breast cancer risk by about 1 percent and more than one to two alcohol drinks per day also increased risk. Conversely, obtaining or maintaining a healthy body weight and limiting alcohol intake lowers risk
The group of women in an older study who exercised moderately for three hours a week reduced their risk almost as much as any of the available drug therapies.
The only readily modifiable reproductive approach to prevention was to breast feed our children for longer. Less than six months per child did little to modify risk, but approaching a year seemed to be protective, especially if you’ve breastfed multiple children—a comment vigorously applauded by one audience member.
Cuzick’s study looked at the ability of anastrazole, a drug we now use to treat breast cancer, to prevent breast cancer in women who’ve never had breast cancer, but who are at increased risk of the disease because of their family history of other noncancerous breast findings. The incidence of breast cancer in the women who got the drug was 50 percent lower than the women at similar risk who took a placebo, certainly good news for women looking to lower their risk. Our experience at Lancaster General Health, however, is that very few healthy women are truly interested in exploring their breast cancer risk in depth. In addition to anastrazole, we also use tamoxifen, raloxifene, and exemestane to prevent breast cancer.
Thankfully, the things we can do to keep our hearts healthy—still the largest killer of women—will also keep our breasts healthy, and breastfeeding, which we have known for a long time to be beneficial for our children’s health, also supports long-term breast health.
Elizabeth Horenkamp, M.D., is a medical oncologist with a special interest in breast cancer, general oncology, and hematology. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, she was a resident at Wilford Hall Medical Center, where she also held a fellowship. She was an undergraduate at Franklin & Marshall College.