Can Breast Cancer Be Prevented?

There’s no sure way to prevent breast cancer. But there are precautions that all women can take to reduce their risk and help increase the odds that if cancer develops, it’s found at an early, more treatable stage.

Some risk factors can be managed and may lower your risk of breast cancer. Women who limit alcohol use, exercise regularly, and stay at a healthy weight decrease their chances of developing the disease. Women who choose to breast-feed for at least several months may reduce their breast cancer risk. And not using hormone therapy after menopause can also help your chances.

It’s important for women to follow the American Cancer Society’s guidelines for diagnosing breast cancer early. If you are at a high risk for breast cancer, there are practices for early detection and prevention. Here are a number of options to consider. But before deciding which option would be best for you, talk with your doctor.

Genetic Testing

Some genetic tests can tell if a woman has certain mutated genes that are typically linked to breast cancer. With this information, women can take preventative steps to reduce their risk. Recently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force made recommendations for genetic testing. They suggest that only women with a strong family history be evaluated for genetic testing for BRCA mutations. This group includes about 2% of adult women in the United States. While many women may have relatives with breast cancer, most cases are not a result of the BRCA gene mutations.

Breast Cancer Chemoprevention

Chemoprevention is the use of drugs to reduce the risk of cancer. Many drugs have been studied for use in lowering breast cancer risk. Tamoxifen® has already been used for many years as a treatment for some types of breast cancer. Studies have shown that women at high risk for breast cancer are less likely to get the disease if they take Tamoxifen®. Another drug, Raloxifene®, has been approved to prescribe to post-menopausal woman who are at high risk for the disease. Other drugs (such as aromatase inhibitors) are also being studied.

Preventive Double Mastectomy

For the few women who are at a very high risk for breast cancer, surgery to remove both breasts, a.k.a  preventive (prophylactic) double (bilateral) mastectomy, may be an option before cancer even develops. While the operation removes nearly all of the breast tissue, a small amount remains. While a double mastectomy greatly reduces the risk of breast cancer, the disease can still start in the remaining breast tissue.

Preventive Single Mastectomy

Some women with breast cancer in only one breast choose to have both the affected breast and the healthy breast removed as a preventative measure. This practice is more common in women who have BRCA mutations, as their risk of a second breast cancer is very high.

Preventive Ovary Removal

Women with a BRCA mutation who have their ovaries removed (a.k.a. prophylactic oophorectomy) may reduce their risk of breast cancer by half or more. Removing one of the main sources of estrogen makes a huge difference in eliminating risk factors.