How to Cut Your Breast Cancer Risk at Any Age: A Decade-by-Decade Guide

Exercising three to four hours per week at moderate or vigorous levels can reduce your risk of breast cancer by about 20%.

As menopause hits, breast cancer rates start to rise, and 1 in 40 women will get the disease in this decade of her life. Taking care of your health becomes more important than ever. Here are the key things you need to do to stay healthy.

1. Schedule an annual mammogram and clinical exam and check your own breasts.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 40 and older get a mammogram and a clinical breast exam every year. Also, stay familiar with your own breasts: If you notice any changes, tell your doctor about them immediately.

2. Drink less alcohol.
“This means no more than one drink per day,” says Anne McTiernan, MD, PhD, the director of the Prevention Center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and coauthor of Breast Fitness: An Optimal Exercise and Health Plan for Reducing Your Risk of Breast Cancer. “Alcohol use increases your risk for breast cancer.” Sadly, this doesnt mean you can “save up” a weeks worth of drinks for a big Saturday night on the town.

A recent National Cancer Institute study of postmenopausal women found that those who had one to two small drinks a day were 32% more likely to develop the most common type of breast cancer (that with tumors that are positive for both estrogen and progesterone receptors). Women who had three or more drinks daily had as high as a 51% increased risk for hormone-sensitive breast cancer.

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3. Maintain your body weight, or lose weight if you're overweight.
Research has shown that being overweight or obese (especially if you're past menopause) increases your risk, especially if you put on the weight as an adult. And a study released in March 2008 by researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston showed that obese and overweight women also had lower breast cancer survival rates and a greater chance of more aggressive disease than average weight or underweight women.

Find your healthy weight. A body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less is considered healthy.

4. Eat a healthy diet.
Try to eat 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and limit your intake of red meat to 4 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards) per day on average. Dr. McTiernan also recommends avoiding meats such as sausages and bologna. “The chemicals that are used to process the meats have been found to cause several kinds of cancers,” she notes. Strive also to minimize your intake of high-calorie foods such as sugary drinks, juice, desserts, and candies, as well as refined breads and chips.

5. Stay active.
Studies suggest that exercising three to four hours per week at moderate or vigorous levels can reduce your risk of breast cancer by about 20%. “We found in the Womens Health Initiative that there was a benefit to exercising in middle to late years even in women who were inactive when young,” says Dr. McTiernan.

And you dont have to be Dara Torres to reap the benefits: Activities like brisk walking, biking, dancing, or any exercise that raises your heart rate above its baseline level for at least 20 minutes and makes you sweat are beneficial.

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Lead writer: Anne Marie O’Connor
Last Updated: September 17, 2008

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