If you have a mother or sister who has had breast cancer, how likely are you to follow in her footsteps? That is the million-dollar question. It’s true that your risk is higher than if you had no such family history—and is greatly increased if you carry certain inherited gene mutations. But separating out the effects of genes, environment and lifestyle behaviors is difficult, if not impossible.
The good news is that you may have more control over your breast health than you think—even if you have a family history. So suggested a study in Breast Cancer Research, which analyzed data from more than 85,000 healthy postmenopausal women in the Women’s Health Initiative (excluding the very small number with a family history of early-onset breast cancer— that is, before age 45).
Women who did three things—exercised, maintained a healthy weight and limited alcohol—had a 15 to 25 percent reduced risk of breast cancer over a five-year period, compared to women who did none of them. Women with a family history, though still at higher risk, benefited as much as those with no family history.
To be “breast-healthy,” you should:
Exercise at least 20 minutes at moderate to vigorous intensity, five or more times a week. The American Cancer Society recommends 45 to 60 minutes of exercise most days.
Maintain a normal body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 25 throughout adulthood (except during pregnancy). To determine your BMI, multiply your weight (in pounds) by 703; divide the result by your height (in inches); then divide again by your height. Or use this BMI calculator.
Limit alcohol to one drink a day (that’s all that’s needed for heart protection anyway). A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits. If you know you are at high risk for breast cancer, or if you have had breast cancer, it makes sense to not drink or to drink only occasionally.