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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Reducing Your Risk Of Breast Cancer With Healthy Living

While you cannot predict whether or not you will get breast cancer, pursuing a healthy lifestyle may reduce your risk of breast cancer and other diseases.

Maintain A Healthy Weight

Your best chance of decreasing your breast-cancer risk is to maintain a healthy body weight, starting at a young age. The following steps, from the nutrition and weight-management book "Eat, Drink And Be Healthy" by Walter C. Willett, M.D., chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, can help you to maintain a healthy body mass index or lower one that's high.

If your BMI (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) is less than 25, you should work to keep it there. If your BMI is greater than 25, you can improve your long-term health by lowering your number. The more your BMI rises above 25, the greater your chance of developing breast cancer. Studies have shown that having a BMI above 25 increases the risk of dying from heart disease and cancer.

Overweight women have higher estrogen levels than thinner women. In addition to the other health problems caused by packing on the pounds, these higher estrogen levels are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Check your BMI if you need to lose some inches.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

Although, women who drink any amount of alcohol have a slightly higher chance of breast cancer, one drink per day has minimal effect on the health of breast tissue. As with food, quantity is once again the culprit. Three or more alcoholic drinks per day may double a woman's risk of breast cancer as compared to non-drinkers.

In general, women should limit rather than eliminate their alcohol consumption to less than two drinks per day. In fact, drinking one alcoholic beverage a day (one ounce of spirits, six ounces of wine, or one 12-ounce beer) is considered healthy, especially for the heart.

If You Drink, Take Folic Acid

For women who do enjoy a drink and sometimes have more than one per day, taking folic acid can offset some of their breast-cancer risk. Many foods, especially cereals and breads, are fortified with folic acid. You can also turn to green leafy vegetables (such as spinach) asparagus, fruits (oranges, cantaloupes, and papayas) and dry beans.

If you favor popping a pill, you can take a 400-microgram folate supplement (the amount in most multivitamins) as safe and inexpensive insurance.

Get Exercise

Exercise has long been regarded as a means of preventing breast cancer by eliminating excess body fat. As mentioned, in overweight individuals, the excess fat cells can lead to higher amounts of estrogen and greater breast-cancer risk. Another theory proposes that the more physically active you are, the more you decrease fat deposits. In turn, fewer deposits might mean the body will have a harder time storing "toxic" substances, such as carcinogens.

Whatever the reasons, breaking a sweat is excellent protection for your body, whatever your weight. Most studies have shown that women who engage in at least one hour a day of physical activity have about a 20-percent decreased chance of developing breast cancer.

Harvard Medical School's landmark Nurses' Health Study showed that postmenopausal women who exercised appeared to get the most breast-cancer protection compared to younger women, but it is never too early to start a healthy habit.

Here's what Dr. Willett recommends: Take walks, make your days more active by using stairs instead of elevators, make exercise fun by doing routines you enjoy or by working with a partner, and, perhaps the toughest task, exercise for at least 30 minutes each day.

If you are active now, congratulations. You can reap even greater benefits by increasing the frequency and intensity of your activity. Try to get 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity at least five days a week, preferably every day. Moderate to vigorous is any activity that elevates your heart rate 50 percent to 70 percent of its maximum and usually causes you to sweat.

Aetna Members: If you are a female member of an HMO-based plan and would like more information about breast cancer and breast cancer prevention, please call (888) 322-8742.

Miembros de Aetna: Si tiene un plan HMO y desea más información sobre el cáncer de seno y la prevención del cáncer de seno, por favor llame al 1-888-322-8742.

Last updated September 8, 2011