Study Looks at Women’s Awareness of Breast Cancer Risk Factors

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A new study looking at women’s awareness of the factors that lower breast cancer risk suggests that women know what these risk-lowering factors are, but don’t actually make the lifestyle changes required.

The study, “Evaluating the opportunity and need for communicating breast cancer risk reduction messages to US women,” was presented on Dec. 13, 2013 at the 2013 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. The research was presented by Marisa Weiss, M.D.,’s chief medical officer.

This study asked a nationally representative sample of nearly 1,700 women about their perceptions of specific lifestyle and personal health choices as they relate to breast cancer risk. The study also asked how interested the women were in learning more about breast cancer risk factors and steps they could take to reduce their risk.

Regarding the causes of breast cancer, the researchers found that the women believed:

  • family history or an abnormal gene caused breast cancer 45.5% of the time
  • lifestyle choices, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, caused breast cancer about 29% of the time
  • environmental exposures, such as chemicals in water or food, caused cancer about 25% of the time

In reality, most inherited cases of breast cancer are associated with one of two abnormal genes: BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene one) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene two). Abnormal BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes may account for up to 10% of all breast cancers, or 1 out of every 10 cases.

While research can’t calculate specifically exactly how much lifestyle factors and environmental exposures contribute to breast cancer diagnoses, we do know that certain factors seem to play a bigger role than others:

  • Compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer. Experts estimate that the risk goes up another 10% for each additional drink women regularly have each week.
  • Girls aged 9 to 15 who drink three to five drinks a week have three times the risk of developing benign breast lumps – certain types of non-cancerous breast lumps are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer later in life.
  • Women who smoke appear to have about a 24% higher rate of breast cancer than women who never smoked.
  • Women who walk at least 7 hours per week have a 14% lower risk of breast cancer compared to women who walk 3 or fewer hours per week. Research suggests that women who are the most physically active have a 25% lower risk of breast cancer compared to women who are the least physically active.

The researchers found that the women had a good idea of lifestyle factors associated with breast cancer risk. More than half the women thought that:

  • not smoking/avoiding second-hand smoke
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • avoiding unnecessary radiation
  • avoiding or limiting exposure to extra hormones
  • exercising
  • eating “real” food
  • getting the right amount of vitamin D
  • limiting alcohol
  • breastfeeding
  • eating a plant-based diet
  • buying organic produce
  • using non-harmful personal care products
  • cooking/storing food in non-reactive containers

have a moderate to strong effect on lowering breast cancer risk.

Still, when the researchers asked the women if they actually did these behaviors, the percentage of women who did each behavior was lower than the percentage of women who believed the factor had a strong effect on lowering risk for most of the factors.

This means that while most women understand that lifestyle choices can reduce breast cancer risk, many women don’t want to make the necessary changes.

The top three factors the women wanted to learn more about were:

  • exercise (41%)
  • weight management (35%)
  • eating “real” food (30%)

Hardly any of the women (only 12%) were interesting in learning how to reduce the amount of alcohol they drink.

The researchers weren’t surprised by the results. Many women, including Dr. Weiss, want to relax and enjoy a glass of wine after a long, stressful day of work. But after her diagnosis in April 2010, Dr. Weiss found other ways to relax at the end of the day, including exercise, cooking, and herbal tea. You can read more of her non-drinking relaxation tips in her December 2011 Think Pink, Live Green expert column.

Overall, the researchers found that the gap between the perceived causes of breast cancer and the actual causes of breast cancer was large, and the gap between the perceived effect of certain lifestyle factors on risk and actually doing those behaviors is even larger. They concluded that there are many opportunities to increase awareness of lifestyle changes that can reduce breast cancer risk.

Doing all that you can do to keep your breast cancer risk as low as it can be makes good sense. Limiting alcohol, not smoking, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight are steps you can take to control several risk factors. You can learn much more about breast cancer risk and other steps you can take to minimize your risk in the Lower Your Risk section.

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