Breast cancer is a big, scary diagnosis. But many other issues, like benign lumps, bumps, and breast tenderness, affect women every day. Here’s your complete guide to protecting your breasts against cancer and other conditions, from puberty through menopause and beyond.
In spite of advances in treatment, breast cancer is frighteningly prevalent, and affects more than 12 percent of American women. That means if you have eight female friends who live to be 85, at least one of them will probably get breast cancer at some point during her life. The good news: it’s very treatable if detected early, and in nine out of 10 cases, she’ll live at least another five years, and usually longer. But once it starts to spread, treatment becomes difficult—so it’s important to get regular screening exams and check your breasts regularly (see below “How to Do a Breast Exam”).
Although the exact causes of breast cancer aren’t clear, the main risk factors are. Some of the most significant include:
- Age: about 67 percent of women who get breast cancer are over 50; most of the rest are between 39 and 49 years old.
- Medical history: women who’ve previously had breast cancer—or endometrial, ovarian, or colon cancer— are at greater risk.
- Family history: women whose mother, sister, or daughter have had breast cancer, especially before menopause, are two to three times more likely to develop breast cancer.
- Genetics: mutations in certain genes—called BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes—predispose a woman to breast cancer, with a lifetime risk of 45 to 80 percent.
- Ethnic background: African-American women are more likely to get breast cancer before menopause.
- Hormones: the greater a woman’s exposure to estrogen, the more likely she is to develop breast cancer. Specific factors that increase risk include early start of menstruation, late menopause, and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) with combined estrogen and progesterone.
- Radiation: high doses of radiation can increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Obesity: obesity alters estrogen metabolism and increases risk, especially in postmenopausal women.
- Drinking alcohol: women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15 percent higher risk.
- High-fat diets: women whose diets are high in fat from red meat or dairy products are more likely to get breast cancer; reducing daily calories from fat to less than 20 to 30 percent may protect against breast cancer.
While other research on the link between diet and breast cancer is less clear, certain foods and nutrients have been shown to offer protection. Some of the best:
- Yellow-orange fruits and vegetables. Sweet potatoes, carrots, mango, papaya, pumpkin, cantaloupe, and butternut squash are high in carotenoids, antioxidants that reduce breast cancer risk by as much as 18 to 28 percent.
- Dark leafy greens. Spinach, Swiss chard, kale, collard greens, beet greens, mustard greens, and turnip greens are high in beta-carotene and other carotenoids, called lutein and zeaxanthin, that reduce breast cancer risk.
- Cruciferous vegetables. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, radishes, Brussels sprouts, kale, arugula, and other members of the brassica family inhibit the development of cancer cells, promote cancer cell death, and reduce breast cancer risk.
- Legumes. Kidney beans, chickpeas, white beans, brown lentils, and dried peas are high in fiber, shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer. The protective effects of fiber are especially strong among women who eat more high-fiber foods during adolescence and young adulthood.
- Cold-water fish. Salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and herring are rich in EPA and DHA, types of omega-3 fats that protect against breast cancer development and encourage cancer cell death.
- Seeds. Flax seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and other seeds, as well as soy, legumes, and grains, are high in lignans, plant compounds that may reduce the risk of breast cancer by as much as 40 to 50 percent.
- Tea. Both green tea and black tea contain polyphenol antioxidants and other phytochemicals that protect against breast cancer.
Other Breast Issues
Cancer isn’t the only condition affecting the breasts. Though most of the following breast problems aren’t indicative of cancer, any changes should be checked out by a physician. Some primary concerns, and ways to prevent or treat them naturally:
- Lumpy breasts. Benign breasts lumps, thickening, small masses, or cysts—known as fibrocystic changes—may be caused by hormonal shifts, especially before and during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.
- Breast pain. Sensitive, sore, or painful breasts, called mastalgia, may be caused by hormonal shifts, and symptoms tend to resolve on their own. Other breast pain that’s not related to the menstrual cycle is usually related to another issue, like a muscle strain under the breast or skin injury.
- Inflammation of the breasts. Redness, heat, lumpiness, and pain, a condition known as mastitis, is most commonly caused by an infection during breastfeeding; blockage and inflammation of the breast duct at other times can also cause mastitis.
- Nipple discharge. Small amounts of fluid coming from the nipples are normal during pregnancy or breastfeeding, and may also be caused by hormonal changes, fibrocystic breasts, injury to the breasts, or some endocrine disorders. Bloody discharge should always be evaluated as soon as possible.
Natural supplements can ease benign breast conditions, especially lumps, cysts, and breast pain. Some of the best:
- Vitamin E. Research shows taking 200 to 400 IUs of vitamin E each day may reduce the severity of breast pain and tenderness.
- Vitamin B. In one study, women who took 40 mg per day of vitamin B for 2 months had a significant reduction in breast pain and tenderness.
- Iodine. Supplemental iodine can effectively treat fibrocystic breast disease and maintain normal breast tissue structure and function. Because excess iodine can cause health problems, check with your doctor first.
- Vitamin A. Increased intake of vitamin A has been associated with reduced risk of benign breast disease.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Some studies show a protective effect of omega-3 fats against benign fibrocystic breast changes, as well as the progression of breast cancer.
How to Do a Breast Exam
The earlier breast cancer gets diagnosed, the better your odds of successfully treating it. Besides regular mammograms and breast exams by your physician, it’s important to check your breasts at home for any suspicious changes.
The best time to do it: three to five days after your period ends; hormonal changes can cause a temporary thickening that makes it hard to feel for lumps and bumps. Do your breast exam right after your annual physical; if there’s anything abnormal, your doctor likely felt it, so what you’ll be feeling is the normal, healthy state of your breasts.
Three ways to check your breasts:
- Lying down, put a pillow under your right shoulder and put your right hand under your head. Using your left hand, move in small circles all around your breasts and out toward (and under) your armpit. Vary the pressure to feel the surface, all the way down to your ribs, then repeat the whole thing on your left breast.
- Standing in front of a mirror in a well-lit room, look for any dimpling, bumps, redness, or changes in breast shape or symmetry. Start with your arms at your sides, and repeat with arms overhead, hands pressing firmly on hips to flex your chest muscles, and bending forward.
- In the shower, soap your hands well and raise your right arm over your head; with flat fingers, check your right breast using the same technique described in the lying- down method. Switch arms, and repeat on your left breast.