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Best ways to prevent breast cancer: What's true and what's not?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Breast cancer prevention: What's fact and what is fiction?

Wendy Chen, MD, MPH, a breast cancer expert at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute says information about breast cancer prevention can be confusing for women, making it important to know what’s true and what isn’t.

According to Chen, genes play a major role for contributing to a woman’s chances of developing the disease. But she also shares the best ways to prevent breast cancer.

Even if you’re at high risk from family history, the best way to prevent the disease is by getting plenty of exercise, eating a balanced and nutritious diet, maintaining a normal body mass index and consuming alcohol in moderation.

Chen says women often ask if consuming soy is safe and if wearing deodorant is a risk for cancer of the breast. What about alcohol consumption?


Dr. Chen led a study that showed having just one drink a day boosts breast cancer risk. If you’re at risk for the disease from family or personal history, it’s important to think about the risks of having a drink.

“Our findings indicate that in some women, even modest levels of alcohol consumption may elevate their risk of breast cancer’, Chen said in a press release.

The study looked at over 105,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study that found women who drink 3 to 6 glasses of wine per week had a 15% higher chance of developing cancer of the breast.

“It’s important to emphasize that an occasional cocktail or glass of wine is fine,” says Chen. “It’s not just what people do in the short term but how much they regularly drink over a long period of time.” Fewer than 3 drinks a week had no impact on a woman’s chance of being diagnosed breast cancer in studies.

Higher risk from having a big baby

Chen says it’s possible that having a big baby can boost the chances of breast cancer, but studies are still evolving.

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Current information suggests women have twice the chance of developing the disease if they’ve had a big baby compared to women who have infants whose birth weight is normal. The risk comes from higher levels of estrogen linked to heavier babies.

But Chen also emphasizes that more studies are needed. For now, it’s important for women to focus on a healthy diet and weight before, during and after pregnancy.

Deodorant and breast cancer link

Chen agrees with the National Cancer Institute that more research is needed to show wearing deodorant contributes to risk of breast cancer.

Some studies suggest aluminum in anti-perspirants might have an estrogen effect when absorbed in the body. Other studies found no connection. Wearing deodorant should be an individual choice Chen says.

If you've had breast cancer, soy is okay

“Many of my patients ask about eating soy and soy foods after being treated for breast cancer,” says Chen. “But the research shows that soy is not harmful.”

The truth is soy might help women avoid recurrence the disease in addition to slightly lower the chances of dying from breast cancer.

In a study that looked at 9,500 American and Chinese breast cancer survivors, women who consumed at least 10mg of soy isoflavone each day had a 25% lower chance of breast cancer returning.

The best way to avoid breast cancer is with regular exercise, limiting alcohol consumption to less than 3 drinks per week, watching your weight, including before, during and after pregnancy and by eating nutritious well-balanced meals that can safely include soy.

Speak with your health care provider about your own risks for the disease. If you notice any changes in your breasts, see you doctor and make sure to get your annual mammogram if you’re over age 40.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
October 18, 2012

Image credit: Bing