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Prevention - Breast cancer in women

As the causes of breast cancer are not fully understood, it's not known if it can be prevented altogether.

Some treatments are available to reduce the risk in women who have a higher risk of developing the condition than the general population.

Diet and lifestyle

Regular exercise and a healthy, balanced 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, there are benefits for women who:

Use our healthy weight calculator to check if you're a healthy weight.

It's also been suggested that regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer by as much as a third.

If you've been through the menopause, it's particularly important that you're not overweight or obese. This is because these conditions cause more oestrogen to be produced by your body, which can increase the risk of breast cancer.


Studies have shown women who breastfeed are statistically less likely to develop breast cancer than those who don't.

The reasons are not fully understood, but it could be because women do not ovulate as regularly while they're 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'll usually be referred to a specialist genetics service if it's thought you have an increased risk of breast cancer. Healthcare professionals working at these services should discuss treatment options with you.

The 2 main treatments are surgery to remove the breasts (mastectomy) or medication. These are described in more detail below.


mastectomy is surgery to remove the breasts. It can be used to treat breast cancer, and can 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's 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 breast 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.

An alternative to mastectomy is a nipple-sparing mastectomy, where the whole mammary gland is removed, but the skin envelope is preserved. This is not widely available at the moment, but it's being used more often and can achieve excellent results.

Read more about your body and your breasts after treatment.


There are 3 medicines available on the NHS for women at an increased risk of breast cancer:

  • tamoxifen – for women who either have or have not been through the menopause
  • anastrozole – for women who have been through the menopause
  • raloxifene – for women who have been through the menopause

These medicines are usually taken once a day for 5 years. They can reduce your risk of breast cancer while you're taking them and possibly for several years afterwards.

Side effects of these medicines can include:

There's also a small risk of more serious problems, such as weak bones (osteoporosis)blood clots or womb cancer.

If your doctor suggests taking medication to reduce your breast cancer risk, ask them about the benefits and risks of each medicine.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has more on drug treatment to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

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Page last reviewed: 26 September 2016
Next review due: 26 September 2019