Breast cancer (female) - Prevention 

Preventing breast cancer 

As the causes of breast cancer are not fully understood, it is not possible to know if it can be prevented altogether.

For women at a higher risk of developing the condition than the general population, some treatments are available to reduce this risk.

Diet and lifestyle

Regular exercise and a healthy diet are recommended for all women as they can help prevent many conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and many forms of cancer.

Studies have looked at the link between breast cancer and diet and, although there are no definite conclusions at the moment, there are benefits for women who maintain a healthy weight, do regular exercise and who have a low intake of saturated fat and alcohol. Use the healthy weight calculator to check if you are a healthy weight.

It has also been suggested that regular exercise can reduce your risk of breast cancer by as much as a third. If you have been through the menopause, it is particularly important you are not overweight or obese. This is because these conditions cause more oestrogen to be produced, which can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Read more information about getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.

Breastfeeding

Studies have shown that women who breastfeed are statistically less likely to develop breast cancer than those who do not. The reasons are not fully understood, but it could be because women do not ovulate as regularly while they are breastfeeding and oestrogen levels remain stable.

Treatments to reduce your risk

If you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer, treatment is available to reduce your risk.

Your level of risk is determined by factors such as your age, your family's medical history and the results of genetic tests.

You will usually be referred to a specialist genetics service if it is suspected that you are at an increased risk of breast cancer. Healthcare professionals working at these services should discuss the treatment options with you.

The two main treatments are surgery to remove the breasts (mastectomy) or medication. These are described in more detail below.

Mastectomy

A mastectomy is surgery to remove the breasts. It can be used to treat breast cancer as well as reduce the chances of developing the condition in the small number of women from high-risk families.

By removing as much breast tissue as possible, a mastectomy can reduce your risk of breast cancer by up to 90%.

However, like all operations there is a risk of complications and having your breasts removed can have a significant effect on your body image and sexual relationships.

If you want to, you can usually choose to have a breast reconstruction either during the mastectomy operation, or at a later date. During breast reconstruction surgery, your original breast shape is recreated using either implants or tissue from elsewhere in your body.

An alternative is to use breast prostheses. These are artificial breasts that can be worn inside your bra.

See mastectomybreast reconstruction and living with breast cancer for more information.

Medication

In June 2013, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) announced that two medications, called tamoxifen and raloxifene, would be available on the NHS for women who have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

Either tamoxifen or raloxifene can be used in women who have been through the menopause, but only tamoxifen should be used in women who haven't.

These medications may not be suitable if in the past you have had blood clots or womb cancer, or if you have an increased risk of developing these problems in the future. Women who have already had a mastectomy to remove both breasts won't be offered these medications because their risk of developing breast cancer is very small.

A course of treatment with tamoxifen or raloxifene will usually involve taking a tablet every day for five years.

Raloxifene can cause side effects including flu-like symptoms, hot flushes and leg cramps. Side effects of tamoxifen can include hot flushes and sweats, changes to your periods and nausea and vomiting.

Your chances of giving birth to a child with birth defects increases while you are taking tamoxifen, so you will be advised to stop taking it at least two months before trying for a baby. The medication can also increase your risk of blood clots so you should stop taking it six weeks before any planned surgery.

Currently, these two medications are not licensed for the purpose of reducing the risk of breast cancer in women with an increased risk of developing the condition. However, they can still be used if you understand the benefits and risks and your doctor believes the treatment will be helpful.

For more information, read ‘Drugs to be offered to women at high risk of breast cancer’.

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Page last reviewed: 09/07/2012

Next review due: 09/07/2014

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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

mastermichael said on 30 May 2013

In China - where the incidence of breast cancer is one of the lowest rates in the world - there is a specific exercise for the prevention of breast cancer, known as 'the first arm swing' in medical qigong...can people in the west spend 15 minutes a day arm swinging? If so, let me know and I will set up some workshops!

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