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Breast cancer is a scary topic for women, with many of us admitting we worry more about developing breast cancer than we do heart disease — the number one killer of women. Yet, as with heart disease, we can significantly reduce the risk of certain types of breast cancers if we simply switch to healthier habits.
Researchers see the evidence when they compare breast cancer rates in developed nations — like the United States — to rates in less-developed areas. Shockingly, women in developed nations have five times the rate of postmenopausal breast cancers and twice the rate of premenopausal breast cancers as do women in less developed countries.
Simply put, our unhealthy, stressful habits put us at greater risk.
The good news is habits can change. While some factors are beyond our control, experts say these 11 healthy lifestyle habits are scientifically proven to lower our breast cancer risk.
1. Maintain a healthy weight
If you are overweight or obese, your risk is far higher than that of leaner women. That's because fat cells release substances including estrogen, which is thought to raise the risk of breast cancer, says Dr. Peddi Parvin, an assistant clinical professor of health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.
One study found that a weight loss of just 5 percent could reduce breast cancer risk by anywhere from 25 to 40 percent. A study published this past August found that women who were obese — those having a body mass index of 35 or more — were nearly 60 percent more likely to develop an invasive breast cancer compared to women who were at a healthy weight.
"We advise women to keep their bodyweight as lean as possible," Parvin says.
2. Cut back on booze
Cutting alcohol ranks as high as losing weight when it comes to breast cancer prevention. More than 100 observational studies have linked drinking with an increased risk of breast cancer. One study found that for every third of an ounce of alcohol a woman consumed her risk went up by 12 percent.
A study published in August suggests that even one drink per day puts us at greater risk. "Alcohol consumption has been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer development and there's a dose relationship, so drinking more than one drink a day would significantly raise the risk of breast cancer," Parvin says.
3. Get regular exercise
Numerous studies have linked exercise to a decrease in risk. And, it's measurable.
A recent meta-analysis found a 3 to 5 percent reduction in risk per every two hours of moderate to vigorous exercise per week.
"If we could just get everybody moving and exercising we'd change a lot of health outcomes, including heart disease and cancer reduction," says Dr. Susan Domchek, a professor of medicine and the director of the Basser Center for BRCA at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
4. Give up red meat
We've been hearing it for years: red meat is bad news. It's certainly true when it comes to your breast health. Studies have found that the risk of breast cancer rises with increasing amounts of red meat consumed.
In fact, one report found that each additional 100 grams — approximately 3 ounces — of red meat increases risk by 4 percent.
5. Eat fish instead of meat
Omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrient from fish help lower breast cancer risk. In fact, studies show each helping of oily fish has an effect.
6. Eat more soy
A recent study found that women who consume moderate amounts of soy are at lower risk of developing breast cancer.
One meta-analysis found that eating soy-based foods lowered the risk by 11 percent. However, the studies were done on only Asian women, so it was unclear how generalizable the findings are.
7. Eat more curry
Evidence shows that curcumin — one of curry's main ingredients — is toxic to cancer cells. And it's not just curcumin, says Bharat Aggarwal, Ransom Horne, Jr., Professor of Cancer Research and professor of cancer medicine (Biochemistry) and chief of the Cytokine Research Laboratory in the department of experimental therapeutics at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
A host of other spices seem to have anti-cancer potential, including ginger, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and red pepper.
8. Use more olive oil
Splash olive oil on your salads or sop it up with a piece of nice crusty Italian bread.
A study published in September found that eating a Mediterranean diet reduced breast cancer risk by 41 percent, while eating a Mediterranean diet along with liberal consumption of olive oil reduced the risk by 68 percent.
9. Get enough fiber
Whether it comes from fruits, veggies or whole grains, fiber is good for breast health. Studies have found as much as a 5 percent reduction in breast cancer risk per every 10 grams of fiber added to a woman's diet per day.
10. Get enough sleep
Aim to sleep between six and nine hours every night. Studies show sleeping for less than six hours each night raises a women's risk by nearly 50 percent. But, sleeping too much is no good either. Women who slept nine or more hours or more were at a 60 percent higher risk than those who slept a healthy amount.
Other nighttime habits play a role, too. A study published this past spring found that women who worked nightshifts, especially those who ended up with shorter sleep hours, were at higher risk of breast cancer. In fact, just working a nightshift raised the women's risk by 34 percent.
11. Don't smoke
Though studies have been mixed on the impact smoking has on breast cancer, it's best to play it safe, says Dr. Anne McTiernan, a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a research professor at the University of Washington. "Smoking has been shown in select populations to increase the risk of breast cancer," McTiernan says. "And it's such an important risk factor for cancer in general that it makes sense to quit."