About 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, according to the latest data from BreastCancer.org. That being said, breast cancer incidence rates in the U.S. have been decreasing since 2000. This decrease can most likely be attributed to more research which has helped scientists learn about factors that can increase or decrease a woman’s risk.
Findings have revealed that some habits and lifestyle changes are associated with a lower rate of breast cancer, while other research shows an association between certain lifestyle choices (like when you started a family) and a reduction in breast cancer risk. While you should absolutely talk to your doctor if you have a family history of breast cancer, learn more about changes you can make to help reduce your general risk of developing breast cancer.
Research has shown that women who breastfeed greatly lower their risk of developing breast cancer. “Breastfeeding can play a role in breast cancer prevention, but the thought is, generally, the longer that you breastfeed, the greater the protective effect,” says Jennifer Caudle, D.O., Associate Professor, Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. This could be due to the hormonal changes that happen during lactation that delay periods and limit exposure to estrogen, which can promote breast cancer cell growth, according to the experts at MD Anderson.
The Length of Your Pregnancies
This risk is obviously one you can’t have much control over, but a large Danish study (2.3 million women with detailed reproductive history from 1978 to 2014) showed that full-term pregnancies have been found to reduce a woman’s breast cancer risk, according to the research published in the journal Nature last year. When combined with another study, the researchers found that in women who had pregnancies that lasted 34 weeks or more, their breast cancer risk was reduced by 13.6 percent on average. While there isn’t much you can do after the fact about when your babies were born, if you are planning to start a family, some things you can do to help prevent a preterm baby include getting to a healthy weight, reducing stress, quitting smoking, cutting back on drinking alcohol, and getting checked out by your doctor for chronic conditions.
Starting Your Family Before You’re 30
This breast cancer reduction factor was also addressed in the same Nature study. Researchers reported that for childbirths before 30 years of age, women’s long-term breast cancer risk was reduced about 5 percent for the first baby, 6.4 percent for the second baby, and 9.4 percent for the third baby. That doesn’t mean that having your children after age 30 is putting you at risk for breast cancer, it’s just noting an association between a reduced risk and the age you give birth.
Being a Morning Person
If you prefer to jump out of bed early in the morning, you could have a 40 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women who stay up late at night, according to research from the University of Bristol. In a study of several hundred thousand women in the U.K., that was presented at the NCRI Cancer Conference in 2018, women who answered questions saying they preferred mornings tended to have a reduced risk of breast cancer over women who had an evening preference.
Your Sleep Habits
Although you’ve heard over and over again that we’re a sleep-deprived society, in the U.K. study mentioned above, they found that women who slept more than the recommended seven to eight hours had a 20 percent increased risk of breast cancer per additional hour slept. “We found some evidence for a causal effect of increased sleep duration and sleep fragmentation on breast cancer,” said Dr. Rebecca Richmond, a research fellow who worked on the study, in the press release. So work to develop better sleep habits for overall health benefits.
Limiting Exposure to Radiation
“You want to avoid exposure to radiation for a lot of different reasons, but certainly for breast cancer and other [cancer risks],” says Dr. Caudle. “I’m talking about things like a CT scan (also called a CAT scan) that uses high doses of radiation.” Even limiting X-rays when you can is a good idea, she says. “Only get the tests you need when you need them. There is some data that suggests that there may be a link between breast cancer and the cumulative exposure to radiation over the lifetime.”
Reduce Your Evening Screen Time
It can be hard to put down your phone, tablet, or laptop at night or to shut off the TV and pick up a book, but recent research found that exposing your body to artificial light at night increases your risk for certain cancers, such as breast and prostate. A study of over 4,000 participants indicated that those with exposure to higher levels of artificial light at night (like those emitted from phones and tablets) had 1.5 times higher risk of developing breast cancer, when compared to a less-exposed population. Power down your devices at least an hour before bed and — at the minimum — change the settings on your phone and tablets to ‘night shift’ mode so you’ll reduce the blue light you’re exposed to.
Your Choice of Birth Control
“There is some evidence that hormonal contraception, which includes birth control pills and certain IUDs, can increase the risk of breast cancer,” says Dr. Caudle. A 2017 Danish study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported findings that suggested older forms of hormonal birth control, which contained higher doses of hormones, were linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. Newer forms of contraceptives that contained lower doses of hormones were considered safer, though all hormonal contraceptives have warnings in the instructions that they could increase cancer risk.
Experts think that the risk is very small, and that it can decrease after you stop using contraceptives, Dr. Caudle says (Although the risk is still higher than if you never used hormonal contraceptives.) If you have a family history of breast cancer, talk to your gynecologist about his or her recommendation of the best birth control method for you.
This finding isn’t surprising since exercise boosts your overall health. But this is something that you can act on right now to help reduce your breast cancer risk. Regular exercise can help reduce your risk of breast cancer if you’ve never been diagnosed, as well as help reduce the risk of breast cancer returning if you previously were diagnosed. Make an effort to move at least 30 minutes five days a week to reach the recommended 150 minutes per week.