Even though heart disease is the number one killer of women, breast cancer is the disease that continues to scare us the most. Research shows that 90% of women hugely overestimate their chances of getting it—most guess that their risk is nearly 50%, which is more than three times the actual likelihood of 14%. To ease your fears, we've sorted through the latest findings and consulted cancer experts and researchers to determine how you can lower your odds even further. "If a woman implements a variety of strategies, she can significantly impact her overall risk," says Marisa C. Weiss, M.D., an oncologist in Philadelphia and founder and president of breastcancer.org. Plus, most of these anticancer strategies keep you healthier overall, so put them on your must-do list today.
1. Get moving. High levels of estrogen are strongly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, but regular exercise reduces the amount of the hormone in your body. Dedicating as little as an hour and 20 minutes per week to physical activity slashes your risk of developing the disease by 18%, according to research from the University of Southern California/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles. But more is better, says study author Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D. "I recommend that women get at least three to four hours weekly (about 30 minutes a day) to reduce their risk by 30% to 40%."
2. Maintain your weight. A recent study of 44,000 postmenopausal women found that those who gained more than 60 pounds after age 18 tripled their risk of getting breast cancer compared with those who gained 20 pounds or less. Even more worrisome: Weight gain was associated with an increased likelihood of developing a faster-spreading cancer. Having a body mass index (BMI) over 25 seems to increase the amount of estrogen in the body as well as insulin levels, which has also been implicated in breast cancer. Don't know your BMI? Calculate it at cdc.gov/bmi.
3. Veg out. Carotenoids, the antioxidants in brightly colored produce, fight cell damage by eliminating cancer-causing substances, says cancer researcher Archana Jaiswal McEligot, Ph.D, an associate professor of health sciences at California State University at Fullerton. And fiber found in fruits and vegetables may defeat cancer cells by regulating insulin and fighting inflammation, which has recently been linked to everything from Alzheimer's and arthritis to heart disease and cancer. Strive for seven servings of fruits and veggies daily. Dark green, leafy vegetables like kale and spinach, and cruciferous types, such as broccoli, are most beneficial. The lycopene in tomatoes also has a protective effect—surprisingly, processed tomato sauce and ketchup contain more of the antioxidant than the raw fruit.
4. Eat healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids decrease the strength of estrogen in the breast tissue, and they also subdue inflammation, says Christine Horner, M.D., author of Waking the Warrior Goddess: Dr. Christine Horner's Program to Protect Against and Fight Breast Cancer (Basic Health). Boost your daily intake by sprinkling 2 to 3 tablespoons of ground flaxseed on cereal, yogurt, or veggies daily. (As an added bonus, flaxseed also contains phytochemicals called lignans, which are thought to help thwart the growth of tumor-feeding blood vessels and reduce fat cells' production of estrogen.) Olive oil, too, should be a regular in your kitchen—people who consume this and other Mediterranean diet staples tend to have lower rates of breast cancer.