River of Hope

There's reason to be hopeful about breast cancer. Rates are going down and more women are surviving the disease. Follow our guide to reduce your risk.

River of Hope
Pin it Danny Miller

It's hard to imagine a body part that stirs more pleasure and more angst for women than breasts. As 10-year-olds, we wonder if they’ll ever emerge. As nursing mothers, we revel in their ability to give sustenance. We fret that they’re too small or too big.  And worst of all, we fear that an errant cell somewhere may be growing and dividing, forming a tumor that could change our lives forever. The fear is real: About one in eight American women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. But even in the harsh statistics, there’s some good news: Breast cancer rates are on the decline and are now at their lowest level since 1987.  In 2002, millions of women dumped their hormone supplements (and many others decided not to start taking them) after the Women’s Health Initiative reported that women who were on hormone replacement therapy for an extended period of time were at increased risk of breast cancer, stroke, and heart attack. After analyzing the data in detail, the M.D. Anderson researchers came to the conclusion that the dramatic shift in hormone usage could explain the drop in breast cancer cases.

Mammography remains the most effective way to catch breast cancer. But how can a health-conscious woman keep from getting the disease? The most important risk factors—genetics, age, race, reproductive history—can’t be changed. But there are several things you can do to reduce your risk:

• Don’t smoke Numerous studies show that tobacco increases the chance of breast cancer. A 2002 study by researchers at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine found that the more cigarettes women smoked and the longer they kept up the habit, the higher their risk of developing the disease was.
• Cut back on alcohol Just two drinks of alcohol a day have been shown to significantly increase breast cancer risk, according to multiple studies. Maintain a healthy weight Women who are overweight or obese after menopause are at increased risk of developing breast cancer. A 2002 study by the American Cancer Society estimated that 30 percent to 50 percent of breast cancer deaths among postmenopausal women in the United States may be attributed to obesity. • Exercise regularly In a 2003 study from the national Women’s Health Initiative, women who walked briskly for a couple of hours every week had an 18 percent lower risk of breast cancer than sedentary women. Those who got more than ten hours of vigorous exercise each week lowered their risk by about 22 percent.
• Reduce estrogen exposure Avoid prolonged hormone replacement therapy. If you’re bothered by menopausal symptoms, consider taking black cohosh, an herbal remedy. In a 2007 epidemiological study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that women who had taken black cohosh supplements had a 61 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer than other women.
• Eat well Aim for a mostly plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Be sure to eat some of the cancer-fighting foods listed on the next page.