Fight the odds
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Breast cancer is the most common cancer among European women. Even though the five-year survival rate—82 percent—has vastly improved over the past 30 years, one in eight women can still expect to be diagnosed with breast cancer. (It’s about 100 times rarer in men.) Many risk factors are out of our control: we’re more likely to develop the disease the older we get, for instance, or the taller we are, although this link may have to do with factors such as diet in childhood that contribute to height in adulthood. But current research is finding that women can, to some extent, shape their own odds.
“It’s incredibly important that people know they are not powerless,” says Susannah Brown, senior scientist at the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) in London, U.K. “There are steps they can take to help reduce their risk.”
Earlier this year, the WCRF partnered with the American Institute for Cancer Research to analyze more than 100 studies drawing on data from millions of women around the world. They found strong evidence of lowered breast cancer risk with simple lifestyle interventions. “It’s never too late to get healthier,” says Brown. “But the earlier you start, the better.” Here are some myths about breast cancer that you can safely ignore.
Here’s how to lower your risk.
Reduce alcohol intake
If you’re drinking for your health, think again. What you’re actually doing is raising your risk of seven different cancers, including colorectal and liver cancer. One drink a day increases your chances of developing breast cancer specifically by as much as 10 percent. Two drinks and you double it by up to 20 percent. Learn more about the link between alcohol and breast cancer.
“A lot of women are shocked by that,” says Dr. Julian Kim, a radiation oncologist with CancerCare Manitoba in Winnipeg. “They want to drink a glass of wine to relax, and they think they’re getting away scot-free.” Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen, which, like other hormones, delivers messages that control cell division in the body. Increased lifetime estrogen exposure is associated with breast cancer.
That’s why getting your first period before age 12 and reaching menopause after 55 are risk factors for the disease. Plus, when we metabolize alcohol, it’s converted into a toxic by-product called acetaldehyde, which can damage DNA and interfere with our ability to repair it.
“Even less than one drink a day raises the risk for breast cancer by 5 percent compared with non-drinkers,” says Dr. Evandro de Azambuja, Medical Director of the Breast European Adjuvant Study Team at the Institut Jules Bordet in Brussels.