We’ve spent the past month raising our awareness about breast cancer. While knowledge is empowering, the scary statistics we’ve been reading can also do a pretty good job of frightening us about the future of our chests. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among American women. It claims thousands of lives every year. You can get it in your 20s. You can get it even if you don’t have a genetic predisposition.
But there’s no need to panic. While you can’t control everything about your health, you don’t have to feel helpless, either—there are lifestyle decisions you can make to help reduce your risk. We’ve combed through the research to bring you six things you can control when it comes to preventing breast cancer.
1. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Breast cancer is often hormonally linked—elevated levels of estrogen in the body contribute to breast cancer risk, and fatty tissue produces estrogen. Studies have shown that obese women are more likely to develop breast cancer than women of healthy weights. Furthermore, a study published in early 2011 found an association between obesity and an aggressive form of breast cancer that is unrelated to estrogen.
2. Load Up on Antioxidants
“Antioxidants” is one of those trendy terms that people love to throw around without actually knowing what it means. Here’s the real definition, according to the National Cancer Institute: Antioxidants are substances that help protect cells from free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage cells and lead to cancer.
While research is a little hazy about the relationship between antioxidant consumption and breast cancer prevention, it can’t hurt to maintain a healthy diet full of antioxidants. Add some new antioxidant-rich (and delicious!) foods to your diet, like berries, apples, eggplant, beans, nuts, and oysters.
3. Cut Back on Alcohol
The relationship between alcohol and cancer is admittedly confusing. It seems that new research appears nearly every other week pointing in a different direction, with some professionals advocating for complete alcohol abstinence, others suggesting a glass of red wine every night.
However, studies have conclusively demonstrated a significant link between alcohol use and breast cancer risk. Women who indulge in one drink per day have a very slight increase in risk as compared to non-drinkers. But that margin grows as the number of drinks increases: Women who have beween two and five drinks per day are about 1.5 times more likely than non-drinkers to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
This doesn’t mean that you have to empty your wine bottles down the sink—but it does mean that you should make responsible decisions when it comes to alcohol consumption.
While babies and breastfeeding might not even be on your radar right now, the choices you make in a few years could affect your overall risk for breast cancer. A Yale University study demonstrated a reduced risk of breast cancer in women who breast-fed for two or more years. While the reason for this is not fully known, some research suggests that the number of complete menstrual cycles, which are reduced while breastfeeding, contributes to breast cancer risk. If you’re pregnant, considering it, or thinking it might be a distant possibility, weigh this in your breastfeeding decision.
5. Know Your Body
We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again—you are your own biggest advocate (and alarm bell). While physician check-ups and mammograms are incredibly important, it’s also crucial that you know your body, its ins and outs, and its eccentricities and oddities.
No matter how old you are, conduct regular breast exams each month. And if you’re not sure how, ask your doctor or check out an online tutorial. Knowing your body can help you spot something out of the ordinary early on, before it even becomes clinically abnormal.
6. Stay Informed
New research is constantly being published regarding breast cancer. Keep yourself informed so you know what you should look out for, what you should worry about, and what you shouldn’t. And stay apprised of local events to support breast cancer research—by helping the research cause, you’re ultimately helping yourself carve a path of breast cancer prevention.
Read more from The Daily Muse’s Breast Cancer Awareness series.
Photo courtesy of Skampy.
Molly is The Daily Muse’s resident bookworm. She currently works in communications and is begrudgingly learning to be a grownup. She likes coffee shops and (the bakery aisle of) grocery stores, reading about other places but not necessarily traveling to them, keeping things clean, and stalking the Harvard Opportunes, her beloved college a cappella group.More from this Author