Angelina Jolie’s recent announcement that she had undergone prophylactic mastectomy set off a lively global dialogue, along with triggering some controversy.
Roughly 2% of all women carry the BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 mutation, which places them at greater risk of breast and ovarian cancer - and one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. While its incidence rate keeps falling by about 2% a year, the rate of women opting to remove both breasts to prevent cancer has increased dramatically from 1998 to 2005, by nearly 50%.
Such highly publicized experiences have a huge impact on a woman’s decision whether or not to undergo surgery to reduce risk of breast cancer.
Family history also greatly influences whether women opted to have risk-reducing mastectomies. Angelina Jolie’s mother died of breast cancer at 56, which is why she says she decided to minimize her own risk. Specifically, women with first and second-generation relatives with breast cancer were most likely to opt for either mastectomy and/or removal of ovaries.
Risk factors for breast cancer include age, family history, medical history and environmental exposure. Fortunately, factors that influence these risks such as weight, physical activity, stress, hormone replacement, oral contraceptive use, smoking and alcohol consumption can be managed with the right diet and lifestyle choices.
Weight gain after menopause influences breast cancer risk. Fat tissue is the body’s main source of estrogen after the body stops producing the hormone. More fat tissue means higher estrogen levels, which increases risk - and exercise is a great way to reduce both fat and weight, lowering risk.
Women who engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity 3-5 days per week show a 20-40% reduction in breast cancer rates. Studies also show a 50% reduction in the risk of breast cancer deaths in physically active women after breast cancer diagnosis, compared with sedentary women.
Breast cancer risk also increases with alcohol consumption, because alcohol can limit the liver’s ability to control blood estrogen levels. In postmenopausal women, four or more drinks every day raises breast cancer risk while smoking is also associated with a slight increase in risk, particularly if the women smoked before having children.
Regular consumption of cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and broccoli is known to lower colorectal, lung, prostate and breast cancer risk. Health experts recommend that women consume a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and healthy monounsaturated fats - along with cutting out or reducing intake of processed foods, sugary drinks, trans-fats and red meat to lower breast cancer risk.
Finally, the same nutrient or food item may reduce one woman’s risk of breast cancer while increasing another’s risk. Studies in Asia show that soy has protective effects in breast cancer, but soy may not pose the same benefits for Western women for various reasons.
If you’re worried about your risk of breast cancer, it is always best to consult your health care provider to create a personal dietary and lifestyle plan that suits your unique combination of age, family history, medical history and likely environmental exposure.