Knowledge is the Key to Preventing Breast Cancer

By Rebecca Cohen, RN, MS, Ed.D., MPA, HNB/BC
Adjunct Professor, Kaplan University School of Health Sciences

Breast cancer is a disease that forms in tissues of the breast, usually the ducts and lobules. While this type of cancer can occur in both men and women, male breast cancer is rare.1 The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that192,370 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed among women in the United States this year, and 1,910 new cases are expected in men. In addition, the ACS expects an estimated 40,610 breast cancer deaths (40,170 women and 440 men). Aside from skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States.2

Risk factors increase your chance of developing breast cancer and are clues that signal which women may be more likely than others to develop the disease. It is important to know your risk factors so that you and your doctor can plan a course of action to reduce your chances of developing the disease, or to detect it in its earliest, most treatable stages. The most common risk factors for breast cancer include the following:1,3,4

  1. Sex: The highest risk factor is being female.
  2. Age: The risk increases as you get older, but it can occur at any age. It is especially higher for women age 60 and older.
  3. Personal History: Your risk increases if you have a mother, sister, daughter, or two or more close relatives who have had the disease. A history of breast cancer in your mother’s OR your father’s family will equally influence your risk.
  4. Breast Cancer Genes: Individuals who inherit a rare alteration in some of their genes are at an “inherited” higher risk for breast cancer and can pass this alteration on to their children. Approximately 5–10 percent of all breast cancers are due to genetic changes.
  5. Early first period (prior to age 12) or late menopause (age 55 or later).
  6. Not having any children or first pregnancy after age 35.
  7. Being overweight or obese, particularly after menopause.

Protective factors, unlike risk factors, decrease your chance of developing cancer. While studies have shown that adding protective factors to your life can reduce your risk of breast cancer, some women do not take action to help themselves because they do not believe they can have an impact on their risk level. Instead, they let misleading myths about breast cancer, such as the ones listed below, influence their preventive behavior:2,3

  1. Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer. (False) 8 out of 10 breast lumps are benign, or not cancerous. However, see your doctor immediately if your breast changes in any way. 
  2. A mammogram can cause breast cancer to spread. (False) Neither mammography, nor the pressure put on the breast during the procedure, can cause cancer to spread.
  3. Having a family history of breast cancer means you will get it. (False) While women who have a family history of breast cancer are in a higher risk group, about 80 percent of women who get breast cancer have no known family history of the disease. If you have a mother, daughter, sister, or grandmother who had breast cancer, you should have a mammogram 5 years before the age of your family member’s diagnosis or starting at age 35.
  4. Using antiperspirants causes breast cancer. (False) There is no evidence that the active ingredient in antiperspirants, or reducing perspiration from the underarm area, influences breast cancer risk.
  5. If you have a risk factor for breast cancer, you are likely to get the disease. (False) Breast cancer is NOT a certainty, even if you have one of the stronger risk factors. By increasing your protective factors you can reduce your risk of getting the disease. 

There is a lot you can do to reduce your risk of getting breast cancer. Nearly 40 percent of all breast cancer cases in the United States could be prevented if women increased their protective factors by making just simple changes in their lifestyle, such as the following:1–7

  1. Decrease your daily fat intake, especially saturated or hydrogenated fats. Eat leaner meats and limit red meat. Use monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, which will also help you reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, and colon cancer.
  2. Incorporate more fiber in your diet, including whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Fresh fruits and vegetables not only have fiber, but also antioxidant properties and micronutrients that may help prevent many diseases.
  3. Limit your alcohol intake. Your risk goes up if you average two or more drinks per day of beer, wine, and distilled liquor.
  4. Stay active. Exercise at least 30 minutes each day or more. Strive to maintain the weight recommended by your doctor and maintain a normal body mass index (BMI). Studies have found that women who were not active when young but begin as they get older can experience significant reductions in breast cancer risk.
  5. Do not smoke.
  6. Women age 40 and older should get a mammogram every 1–2 years. Mammography is the most reliable way to find breast cancer as early as possible, when it is most curable.
  7. Perform a breast self-exam each month, and have a clinical breast exam at least every 3 years starting at age 20, and every year starting at age 40. See your doctor immediately if you notice any changes in your breasts.
  8. Eat foods high in calcium such as: milk, cheese, and other dairy foods, green leafy vegetables, nuts, fish, and soy products such as tofu. Also, make sure that you get enough Vitamin D so that the calcium can be properly utilized.

In summary, you can reduce your risk of getting breast cancer if you: know your risk; get screened; know what is normal for your body; and make healthy lifestyle changes.


1 Amercian Cancer Society, (accessed September 2009).
2, (accessed September 2009).
3 National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc., (accessed September 2009).
4, (accessed September 2009).
5 Reuters online, “Healthy habits prevent breast cancer,” September 1, 2009, (accessed September 12, 2009).
6 American Institute for Cancer Research, (accessed September 2009).
7 Susan G. Komen for the Cure, (accessed September 2009).

Rebecca Cohen, RN, MS, Ed.D., MPA, HNB/BC

Rebecca Cohen is an adjunct professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences and teaches the course Models for Health and Wellness. She has a background in the fields of complementary and alternative medicine, education, and health care quality improvement and leadership. Dr. Cohen is trained in Quantum Touch, Reiki Level II, and the biofeedback, stress reduction technique of HeartMath.  

Dr. Cohen has worked in acute care and long term care, and served as a consultant to mental health agencies, attorneys, and the National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute. She also worked as a Long Term Care Surveyor in the Illinois Department of Public Health and was a professor in a school of nursing. Dr. Cohen’s primary focus is preventive health, and she has developed health education programs for special target groups, corporations, elementary schools, and the community.  She has published more than 30 articles and chapters in nursing text books, and currently works as the editor of the American Holistic Nurses Association newsletter and owns a private wellness coaching practice.

Kaplan Higher Education Corporation is a division of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

another brian hill design