Breast Cancer Risk Reduction: Tips from the UA Cancer Center

Breast cancer strikes 1 out of 8 women in her lifetime, but strategies exist that can reduce the risk of developing the disease and detect it earlier, when it is most treatable, according to an expert at the University of Arizona Cancer Center.

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States, striking 1 out of every 8 women, according to the National Cancer Institute. The University of Arizona Cancer Center’s Beth High, MSN, breast oncology nurse navigator with the center’s Breast Cancer Multidisciplinary Clinic, recommends the following strategies for reducing breast cancer risk and detecting it earlier.

Avoid Alcohol

A clear link exists between increased alcohol use and breast cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“One drink a day is considered safe for women,” says High. One drink is 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits or liquor.

Don’t Smoke

Quitting smoking — or not starting in the first place — will lower the risk of death in women diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the Collaborative Breast Cancer Study conducted by the University of Wisconsin, Dartmouth College and Harvard University.

Smoking status also can limit treatments available after breast cancer diagnosis. Smokers may have to go a month or more without smoking before receiving certain surgeries.

“Women smokers who have mastectomies aren’t candidates for certain types of reconstruction because smoking impairs wound healing,” says High.

Weigh Options

Overweight or obese postmenopausal women have an increased risk of breast cancer, as fat tissue can produce estrogen, a hormone that stimulates the growth of breast cells.

For women who have children, breastfeeding reduces breast cancer risk. “The longer you breastfeed, the less exposure to estrogen you will have,” says High.

Long-term use of hormonal therapy to help with menopause symptoms prolongs estrogen exposure. “Doctors are not prescribing this type of therapy so much anymore,” says High, “but some people need it to counterbalance life-altering effects of menopause.”

Get Mammograms

Early detection may help catch cancers when they are smaller and easier to treat. The UA Cancer Center breast cancer team recommends starting mammograms at age 40, and encourages patients to receive annual mammograms until their health reaches a state at which someone would opt against treatment even if a cancer were found.

“We don’t say, ‘stop getting mammograms at 75.’ If you’re hale and hardy and out hiking Sabino Canyon,  by all means, get your mammogram,” says High. “But if you’re 89 years old and have debilitating illnesses that would affect your ability to tolerate treatment, you might want to forgo mammograms. That’s a decision each patient has to make with her doctor.”

Special Strategies for High-Risk Patients

The UA Cancer Center has a High-Risk Cancer Genetics Clinic to identify patients at a particularly high risk for breast cancer. The clinic offers increased screening, risk-reducing therapy and prophylactic (or preventive) surgery.

“If somebody has a strong family history, we send them to a genetic counselor,” explains High. “If they meet very specific criteria, a blood sample is sent for genetic testing. If the test shows a genetic mutation, then we discuss risk-reducing therapy such as tamoxifen and surgery. Close monitoring always is part of the plan.”

Close monitoring involves more frequent mammograms, or MRIs for people with dense breasts, which are composed of more supportive tissue than fatty tissue are difficult to visualize on mammograms. Risk-reducing therapy includes daily pills that block or reduce estrogen. Surgical removal of breasts reduces breast cancer risk by as much as 97 percent. “There’s still a small chance that some breast tissue is left behind, so we continue to monitor for any signs of breast cancer,” says High.

To Learn More

For more information about breast cancer detection and treatment, please visit the UA Cancer Center website.

About the University of Arizona Cancer Center

The University of Arizona Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center headquartered in Arizona. The UA Cancer Center is supported by NCI Cancer Center Support Grant No. CA023074. With primary locations at the University of Arizona in Tucson and at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, the UA Cancer Center has more than a dozen research and education offices throughout the state, with more than 300 physicians and scientists working together to prevent and cure cancer. For more information: (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube)

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences

The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. The UA Health Sciences includes the UA Colleges of Medicine (Phoenix and Tucson), Nursing, Pharmacy and Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the growing Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, the UA Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona and the greater Southwest to provide cutting-edge health education, research, patient care and community outreach services. A major economic engine, the UA Health Sciences employs almost 5,000 people, has nearly 1,000 faculty members and garners more than $126 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn)