How To Reduce Your Risk Of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK for women. Every year around 55,900 people receive a diagnosis. Although there are some risk factors for developing the disease that can’t be changed, such as your age or genetics, there are steps that all of us can take to reduce our risk of developing breast cancer.


Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Gaining weight throughout your lifetime increases your risk of developing breast cancer after the menopause – the more weight you gain, the higher the risk. Research has found that having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of between 18 and 25 lowers your risk of breast cancer. If you’re already overweight, losing just 5% of your weight (and keeping it off!) can reduce your risk substantially – by between 25 and 40%.

Eat more fruit, vegetables and wholegrains while avoiding processed foods which are often high in sugar and fat. We recommend the clinically-proven 2-Day diet by our experts Dr Michelle Harvie and Professor Tony Howell, which is easy to follow and is an effective method for losing weight and keeping it off.

Alternatively you might consider restricting your calories for just one day per week – or just eating more healthily with the help of recipes from our 2-Day Diet Cookbook.

Exercise Can Reduce your Risk of Breast Cancer

Evidence has proven that regular exercise reduces your risk of breast cancer. Aim for five exercise sessions a week, lasting 35 to 45 minutes each. It doesn’t need to be anything too strenuous, even a brisk walk a day will do, but anything that makes you breathe harder and makes your heartbeat faster will help reduce the chances of you developing breast cancer.

Our research has found that as well as reducing the risk of developing breast cancer, exercise can lower the risk of the disease coming back (recurrence) if you’ve already been diagnosed.

Cutting Down on Alcohol Can Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer

We all know that excessive drinking isn’t good for us, but should we all be going teetotal? It has been shown that women who drink more alcohol do have higher rates of breast cancer than those who don’t drink at all, but the extra risk is lower if you limit your consumption.

The NHS advice is that men and women should not drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis, emphasising the importance of spreading your drinking over 3 or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week. Discover more about alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk with Dr Emma Davis.

Regularly Checking Your Breasts

It may not directly reduce your risk, but if you are familiar with what’s normal for your breasts then you will be able to spot any changes, such as lumps, swelling or pain. The earlier that breast cancer is found, the higher the chance of beating it, so if you notice anything unusual visit your GP to get it checked. We have a helpful guide to show you how to check for signs and symptoms of breast cancer and what to keep an eye out for.

Can Mammograms Detect Breast Cancer?

Breast screening can pick up breast cancers at an early stage when they’re too small to see or feel. It can also monitor changes in the breast from screening to screening, as well as measuring your breast density, as this has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.

In the UK, breast screening is routinely offered to all GP registered women aged 50 to 70, every 3 years, as part of a national breast screening programme. From 2021-22, the NHS breast screening programme saw over 20,000 women being diagnosed with breast cancer. The chance of surviving breast cancer is much better if found through screening, and the NHS estimates that 1,300 extra lives are saved each year because of that earlier diagnosis.

Making it more important than ever that you look out for your invite and call your local centre to book your mammogram appointment. Understand more about the importance of early detection with Elaine Harkness, researcher explorer at The University of Manchester.

Does Breastfeeding Reduce Risk of Breast Cancer?

Breastfeeding can reduce your risk of breast cancer and we recommend that, if possible, you breastfeed your baby for at least six months. This may not be an option for all mothers, and is a personal choice, but breastfeeding can help protect against breast cancer, especially in younger mothers. The exact reasons behind this aren’t clear, but it has found to be most beneficial for women who breastfeed for over a year – the longer you breastfeed, the greater the reduction in risk.

Hormones & HRT

Research has found a link between the hormone oestrogen and breast cancer. Aim to stop using oral contraceptives when you’re around 30 – speak to your GP about the alternatives available to you. Limit the use of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) to a short time and avoid using this continuously for years. You can learn more about HRT, menopause and breast cancer with Dr Annice Mukherjee.

Explore your family history of cancer

If several of your family members have had breast or ovarian cancer, you may wish to discuss genetic testing with your GP. If you’re concerned about your family history, it’s important that you undergo proper counselling before making any decisions about being tested. Should you carry a gene that increases breast cancer risk, such as BRCA, it’s likely that you’ll be offered a range of preventative options going forward, including regular screening.

Understand more about family history, genes, and genetic testing from our experts.

Preventative drugs

If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may be at a higher risk of developing the disease. If this is the case, you may be offered certain medications, such as Tamoxifen, Raloxifene or Anastrozole through your family history clinic to reduce your chances of developing it.

Frequently asked questions

Typically breast cancers grow quite slowly. The reason that the 3 yearly mammogram provided by the NHS screening programme can save lives is because it typically takes 2 or 3 years for the first tiny signs of cancer or pre-cancer detected by a mammogram to develop into a breast cancer lump that is big enough to easily feel. However, some breast cancers do grow more quickly than this and so can appear during the interval between two mammogram screens which is why it is important to regularly check yourself for the sign and symptoms of breast cancer.

Other breast cancers can be missed by the mammogram because they are ‘invisible’ on the images from those X-rays. This underlines the importance of always reporting a lump (or other symptom) to your doctor, even if you have recently had a normal mammogram. We are working towards a future where breast screening is much more effective: by developing new technologies for really early cancer detection; by introducing personalised risk prediction; and by providing extra screening for those women predicted to have an above average risk.

There is good evidence that women who have lots of babies before they are thirty are less likely to get breast cancer later in life. However, we are not starting a campaign to advocate for teenage pregnancy for obvious reasons! It does however help to explain why breast cancer is more common in the West compared to low and middle income countries.

There have been several studies over the years looking at the potential anti-cancer effects of Aspirin, both as a primary prevention and for prevention of recurrence. It does look as if Aspirin taken every day for 5 years has some beneficial effect, but sadly it comes with a risk of stomach ulcer and bleeding. Studies of ibuprofen are less convincing. One possibility is that Aspirin works through its anti-clotting effect. To help settle the issue we are now waiting for the results of a trial called ‘AddAspirin’ comparing Aspirin with placebo.

In addition, Professor Cliona Kirwan from the Prevent Breast Cancer Research team is investigating an alternative clot-reducing drug called Rivaroxaban as a cancer preventative and we will publish those results once available.

In summary, the five warning signs to look out for are:

• A new lump or thickening in your breast or armpit
• Noticing a change in the size, shape or feel of your breast
• Visible skin changes in the breast such as puckering, dimpling, rashes or redness of the skin
• Fluid leaking from the nipple for women who aren’t pregnant or breastfeeding
• Changes in the position of the nipple – You may notice your nipple turning in and sinking into the breast

If you find a lump or notice any other changes to your breasts, it’s important to get checked by your GP as soon as possible. Book an appointment with your doctor, who may refer you to a breast clinic where you will be seen within two weeks. Many signs and symptoms of breast cancer, including breast lumps, are non-cancerous and caused by normal breast changes. But it remains vital that you pay attention to your body and seek help if you notice anything that is abnormal for you.

When to check your breasts

We advise you check your breasts regularly, once a month. Breasts change at different times of the month, the ideal time to check is just after your period. If you don’t menstruate, checking once a month at any time is fine. Setting a calendar reminder can be useful to help incorporate it into your routine. We suggest the 1st of the month – feel them on the first!

Please note, if you’re viewing on your desktop and click the below button, a calendar invite file called ‘checkyourboobs’ will appear in your downloads folder. You just need to open it in your preferred calendar application, and set a monthly reminder.

About Prevent Breast Cancer

Prevent Breast Cancer is the only UK charity entirely dedicated to the prediction and prevention of breast cancer – we’re committed to freeing the world from the disease altogether. Unlike many cancer charities, we’re focused on preventing, rather than curing. Promoting early diagnosis, screening and lifestyle changes, we believe we can stop the problem before it starts. And being situated at the only breast cancer prevention centre in the UK, we’re right at the front-line in the fight against the disease. Join us today and help us create a future free from breast cancer. If you have any questions or concerns, email us today.

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