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Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting Canadian women, accounting for 25 per cent of all new cancer cases in women. And despite major advances in treatment and improved survival rates over the past 30 years, breast cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death among Canadian women. Mount Sinai Hospital’s Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre (MKBC) treats over 34,000 breast cancer patients every year. Led by Dr. Pamela Goodwin, whose groundbreaking research has improved the world’s understanding of breast cancer risk, the MKBC has pioneered new models of breast cancer care.

“Every woman’s cancer is unique, in that it responds to her unique biology — her health and lifestyle choices, her genetic inheritance. We know some women are carriers of genes that predispose them to breast cancer and others may be carriers of genes we have yet to identify. But regardless of genetic risk, our research has found that it is possible for women to make lifestyle changes that can help decrease their breast cancer risk or risk of recurrence, and that’s a key component of our patients’ treatment plans.”

So what can you do to reduce your risk of breast cancer?

  1. Maintain a healthy weight. Breast cancer is one of 13 cancers found to be strongly associated with obesity. In fact, obesity increases breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women by 30 per cent. Excess weight also affects cancer outcomes: Obese or overweight women have higher rates of breast cancer recurrence than other women. If you are overweight, losing as little as 5 per cent of your body weight could lead to physiological changes that may improve breast cancer outcomes, says Dr. Goodwin.

  2. Stay physically active. According to Dr. Goodwin, exercise helps rid the body of excess fat, thus countering certain cancer-boosting properties created in fat tissue. Likewise, regular exercise can help lower levels of some hormones that are known to promote tumour growth such as insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that controls blood sugar levels.

  3. Avoid smoking and limit alcohol consumption. Smoking is a well-documented risk factor for many cancers, including breast cancer, as well as other diseases such as heart disease and stroke. It’s safest to avoid smoking altogether. Though less well known, alcohol consumption is also linked to cancer risk; in fact, alcohol is one of the top 3 causes of cancer deaths worldwide. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends women reduce their risk by drinking less than 1 standard alcoholic drink per day (men should have less than 2 standard drinks per day).

  4. Get breast cancer screenings. Research shows that regular mammography screenings can reduce breast cancer deaths by as much as 33 per cent for women between the ages of 50 and 69. Women in this age group should have a mammogram every 2 years. If you have a family history of breast cancer or have had an abnormal breast biopsy or previous experience with cancer, talk to your doctor. (S)he may recommend that you have mammography screenings earlier and/or more frequently to better monitor your health.