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Breast cancer risk factors

October 14, 2020 • read

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Breast cancer risk factors

Every illness has a combination of risk factors. Risk factors are what make you more predisposed to developing a certain health issue. You’re exposed to those risk factors through your genetics and your environment.

With environmental risk factors, it’s all about what goes into your body on a regular basis. Everything from the air you breathe to the food you eat falls under this category. Then there’s hereditary risk factors, which we inherit from our parents.

There’s not a lot we can control about the hereditary risk factors when it comes to developing breast cancer. But, it’s possible to minimize the effect of environmental risk factors through lifestyle choices. Here are a few common risk factors that increase your chances of developing breast cancer, and what you can do to lower your risk.

Drinking alcohol

Drinking alcohol once in a while isn’t too risky. But when you drink regularly, your chances of developing breast cancer increase. Having more than three drinks per week increases your risk of developing breast cancer by 5-9% compared to women who don’t drink at all. That’s because alcohol can damage your DNA. Drinking 1-2 drinks daily can increase your risk of breast cancer by 30-50%.

Alcohol contains a compound called acetaldehyde. When you drink too much, acetaldehyde builds up faster than your body can clear it out. Build ups of acetaldehyde can permanently alter your DNA and damage cells in your body. Over time, exposure to acetaldehyde can cause cancer.

To lower your risk for breast cancer, try having two drinks per week or less. Familiarize yourself with how much alcohol counts as one drink. For beer it’s 12 fluid ounces, for wine it’s 5 ounces, and for spirits it’s 1.5 ounce per serving.

Hormone replacements

Women going through menopause sometimes take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to reduce symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings. HRT can increase your risk of breast cancer up to 75%.

There’s a type of breast cancer called hormone-receptive breast cancer that spreads faster when your body has high estrogen or progesterone levels. The increase in both hormones caused by HRT creates a conducive environment for this type of cancer to grow. 

Women who take combination hormone therapy — with both estrogen and progesterone — are at high risk of developing late-stage cancer, which is difficult to treat. There are non-hormonal options for menopause treatment available. Your doctor can recommend a low-risk treatment plan for you.

Being overweight

When you’re overweight, you carry excess  tissue made of fat cells. Fat cells create estrogen, so having extra fat cells can lead to an overabundance of estrogen. Long-term exposure to estrogen is a risk factor for developing breast cancer. Losing weight decreases your risk of breast cancer. Weight loss is a health goal lots of people find challenging, so ease into it slowly and be kind to yourself. To begin, figure out how much weight you have to lose by calculating your body mass index (BMI). That’s your height in meters divided by your weight in kilograms. If your BMI is over 25, you’re at an increased cancer risk. 

Once you know your goal weight, one way to reach it is to slowly introduce exercise. Even 20 minutes of exercise per day has beneficial effects. Join exercise clubs or explore the great outdoors with your pet to have fun while reaching your fitness goals. You can also get into a great workout program at home with exercise videos on Youtube. Many Canadian gyms are also live-streaming their classes to keep everyone safe during COVID-19. 

Smoking cigarettes

It’s common knowledge that cigarettes cause lung cancer. The more years you’ve smoked, the higher your risk. What you may not know is that any amount of smoking also increases your chances of breast cancer. Cigarettes contain tar and other chemicals, which are carcinogenic when consumed. Your risk also increases if you started smoking in your teenage years, or you’ve been smoking for ten years or more. Studies suggest that smoking cigarettes while your body is still developing can make you more vulnerable to the effects of carcinogens. Smoking is a leading cause of breast cancer in younger women who are premenopausal. 

If you smoke, there is lots of support out there to help you kick the habit for good. Talk to your doctor about your options.

Diet

There’s no secret recipe for stopping cancer. But there are small daily steps that will make a positive long-term impact on your health. Try foods like:

  • Broccoli, bok choy, or brussel sprouts. They’re all part of the cruciferous family of vegetables, and contain a cancer-fighting compound called sulforaphane. More studies are needed to understand it’s full potential, but early studies show promising results for reducing cancer cells.
  • Berries. They’re high in antioxidants that help clear your body of free radicals, which are unstable molecules that damage healthy cells. More research is needed to quantify exactly how much antioxidants reduce cancer risk, but there’s certainly no harm in a handful of delicious berries. 
  • Oils that contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. According to some studies, omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent breast cancer. Omega-3s also support breast cancer recovery because they have a positive effect on your heart and cognitive function. For omega-6 fatty acids, try safflower oil, soybean oil, or a handful of pumpkin seeds. You can find omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed oil, walnuts, and fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel. 

You have the power to decrease your chances of developing breast cancer. Healthy routines like exercise, eating nutritious foods, and cutting back on drinking and smoking are things you can start doing today. Small steps become long term health habits that will help you stay resilient for years to come.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, or want to better understand your personal risk factors, speak to an oncology navigator. They’re knowledgeable about different types of cancer, as well as navigating the hospital system during oncology treatment. That peace of mind is just what’s needed during a stressful, uncertain time. 

Speak to an oncology navigator online

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