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Apr 2011: Lifestyle choices lower breast cancer risk


Although hereditary breast cancer is thought to account for less than 10% of all breast cancers, genetic predisposition and family history are very often stated as risk factors for developing the disease. Besides, it has also been evidenced that women with family history of breast cancer, even if they are negative for the BRCA1 and BRAC2 mutations, are at increased risk of developing the disease [1]. However, some scientists consider arise of family history of breast cancer as a consequence of shared unhealthy behaviors that have been passed down for generations. The results of a recently published study support this approach, and have shown that that regular exercise, healthy body weight, and low alcohol consumption can help women, even when familial predisposition is involved [2].


Main text:

Women with a first-degree family member who developed breast cancer at the age of 45 or more are referred to as having a Family History of Later-Onset Breast Cancer (FHLBC). A family history of later-onset breast cancer may suggest multi-factorial inheritance of cancer risk, including unhealthy lifestyle behaviors that may be shared within families. In order to assess whether adherence to lifestyle behaviors recommended for breast cancer prevention modifies breast cancer risk attributed to FHLBC in postmenopausal women, a study by researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Centre, New York, USA, was carried out.


The authors of this study, which involved over 85,000 postmenopausal women aged from 50 to 79, have included exercise, body mass index, and alcohol intake in their definition of a healthy lifestyle. The researchers' definition of complete adherence to healthy lifestyle has combined at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise for five or more days each week, a healthy body weight (BMI between 18.5 and 24.9), and consumption of 1 or less alcoholic drink per day. They also assessed invasive breast cancer cases that occurred during a mean follow-up of 5.4 years. They examined possible associations between invasive breast cancer cases and family history (later onset), and whether the women had converted from their healthy lifestyle recommendations.


The researchers found out that women who had a family history of breast cancer lowered their risk by about one-fourth by getting regular exercise, limiting alcohol intake and maintaining a healthy body weight. Similarly, women without a family history of the disease who followed a healthy lifestyle lowered their risk by about the same amount.


Based on these facts it was possible to conclude that women who participate in healthy behaviors appear to derive essentially the same benefits, regardless of a family history of late-onset breast cancer.


This study has evidenced that it is possible to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer by at least 25%, by including only these lifestyle components: exercise, weight, alcohol moderation. However, the overall benefit may likely increase as women follow more recommendations in their life behavior.


Very often women are aware of their familial risks and fear related to it may lead them to believe that there's nothing that can be done. Encouraging results of this study show that engaging healthy behaviors is beneficial, regardless of whether or not a family history of breast cancer is involved.


By: Svetlana Obradovic and Luuk Simons


[1] http://www.webmd.com/breast-cancer/news/20081117/family-history-raises-breast-cancer-risk


[2] Gramling, R., T. L. Lash, K. J. Rothman, H. J. Cabral, R. Silliman, et. al. (2010). Family history of later-onset breast cancer, breast healthy behaviour and invansive breast cancer among postmenopausal women: a cohort study. Breast Cancer Research 12:R82



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