Breast cancer is a leading cause of cancer deaths in females. The disease can also affect males, although rarely. A person can help reduce their risk of developing breast cancer by taking preventive actions, including making changes in their lifestyle and diet.

Researchers do not fully understand the exact causes of breast cancer, but the death rate from the disease has decreased in recent years, partly due to early diagnosis and improved treatment.

Some risk factors are beyond a person’s control, such as family history and aging, but a person can address other risk factors related to their lifestyle or diet. In addition, a person should have regular mammograms after age 40.

This article suggests how a person can potentially reduce their risk of breast cancer through positive diet and lifestyle changes. It also discusses protective steps if a person has a family history of breast cancer or a gene mutation that puts them at a higher risk of breast cancer. Finally, it looks at the possible risk factors for breast cancer.

Learn more about male breast cancer here.

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The link between diet and breast cancer is unclear, but researchers continue to investigate the potential role of specific foods and diets in breast cancer prevention. Some studies suggest the following foods and diets may help reduce the risk of breast cancer:

Plant foods

There is moderate evidence of a link between decreased postmenopausal breast cancer risk and a diet that is high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and lower in refined carbohydrates and animal products. Some evidence suggests that eating non-starchy vegetables, and vegetables and fruits rich in carotenoids, may also reduce the risk of estrogen receptor-negative (ER-) breast cancer.

Mediterranean Diet

Research indicates that a Mediterranean diet reduces deaths from all causes, including breast cancer. There is also evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet decreases overweight and obesity, which are potential risk factors for breast cancer.

One 2015 clinical trial found that after menopause, people consuming a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil had a relatively lower risk of malignant breast cancer than people consuming a control diet.

Learn more about the Mediterranean diet here.

Calcium-rich diets

Some evidence indicates that eating a diet high in calcium may protect against breast cancer. Dairy products are a significant source of calcium, vitamin D, and linoleic acids, which may protect against the development of breast cancer.

Few foods have specific links with breast cancer. However, the cumulative effects of poor eating patterns could increase cancer risk. To achieve an overall healthy eating pattern, the American Cancer Society recommends limiting or excluding the following foods from a person’s diet:

  • red meats and processed meats
  • sugar-sweetened beverages
  • refined grain products
  • highly processed foods
  • alcohol

Lifestyle changes that may reduce a person’s risk of breast cancer include:

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight: Keeping body weight within a healthy range throughout life.
  • Keeping physically active: Adults should do 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity each week to protect against breast cancer.
  • Limiting sedentary behavior: Sitting or lying down for long periods, watching television, or another screen-based entertainment is associated with an increased risk of weight gain, overweight, and obesity, which may contribute to breast cancer risk.
  • Breastfeeding following childbirth: There is strong evidence that breastfeeding decreases a person’s risk of breast cancer. Experts suggest that the longer a person breastfeeds their baby, the greater their protection against breast cancer.
  • Discussing risk before taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT): HRT, specifically estrogen-progestin therapy (EPT) for menopause symptoms, is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. People should discuss their cancer risk with a doctor. Generally, a person should not take HRT after breast cancer because it could raise the risk of recurrent breast cancer.

Some people may have a family history of breast cancer or have a gene mutation that puts them at a higher risk of breast cancer than the general population.

Medications, such as tamoxifen, raloxifene, and aromatase inhibitors may help minimize the risk in some people with an increased breast cancer risk.

A doctor also may suggest removing the breasts and ovaries for a small percentage of people with a very high breast cancer risk, such as those with a BRCA gene mutation. Surgery to remove both breasts may lower the risk of breast cancer by at least 95% in people with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation and up to 90% in people with a strong family history of breast cancer. Removing the ovaries and fallopian tubes may reduce the risk of breast cancer by 50%. However, preventive surgery does not eliminate breast cancer risk and has associated side effects.

People should discuss their options with a healthcare professional to understand how these approaches may affect their breast cancer risk.

The exact causes of breast cancer are unclear. However, risk factors for breast cancer include:

Risk factorPossible effect on the risk of getting breast cancer
GenderFemales are much more likely than males to develop breast cancer. Less than 1% of new cases of breast cancer occur in males.
AgeA person’s risk of breast cancer increases as they get older. It is most common in females over the age of 50.
Medical historyHaving a breast condition, such as lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), may increase the risk of breast cancer. In addition, if a person had breast cancer in one breast, they have a higher risk of developing it in the other breast.
Family medical historyIf a person’s mother, sister, or daughter has had breast cancer, they may have an increased risk of breast cancer.
GeneticsInherited gene mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, may increase the risk of breast cancer. The lifetime risk of breast cancer is 55–65% for people with the BRCA1 mutation, 45–47% for the BRCA2 mutation, and 12.4% for the general population.
Breast tissue densityPeople with higher breast density may have a higher risk of breast cancer than those with lower breast density.
Early menstruationPeople who started their period before age 11 are around 20% more likely to develop breast cancer than people who started after age 14.
Later menopauseMenstruating for more years exposes the breast tissue to estrogen for longer, which may increase breast cancer risk.
Later first pregnancyPeople who have their first full-term pregnancy before age 20 years could be around half as likely to develop breast cancer as those who have a first pregnancy after age 35.
WeightExcess weight throughout adulthood could cause postmenopausal breast cancer.
AlcoholPeople who have three alcoholic beverages each week may have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer than people who do not drink alcohol.
RadiationHaving radiation treatment to the chest area as a child or young adult may increase the risk of breast cancer.

Certain risk factors are associated with breast cancer, and lifestyle changes may help reduce the risk of getting the disease. Poor eating patterns, poor food choices, and a sedentary lifestyle may increase a person’s risk of breast cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight throughout life, eating a healthy diet, and keeping physically active may help reduce breast cancer risk.