Prevention - Breast cancer in women

As the causes of breast cancer aren't 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 breast cancer.

Diet and lifestyle

Regular exercise and a healthy, balanced diet are recommended for all women. These 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. Although there are no definite conclusions, there are benefits for women who:

  • maintain a healthy weight
  • exercise regularly
  • have a low intake of saturated fat and alcohol

It's also been suggested that regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.

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. This can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Breastfeeding

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

The reasons aren't fully understood. It could be because women don't ovulate as regularly while they're breastfeeding and oestrogen levels remain stable.

Treatments to reduce your risk

If you have a greatly increased risk of developing breast cancer, for example a BRCA gene carrier, treatment might be available to reduce your risk. This applies to a very small minority of women.

Your level of risk is determined by factors such as your age, your family's medical history, and the results of genetic tests.

You will usually be referred to a specialist genetics service if it's thought you have a signifcantly increased risk of breast cancer. Healthcare professionals working at these services might discuss treatment options with you.

The 2 main treatments are:

  • surgery to remove the breasts (mastectomy)
  • medication
Mastectomy

A mastectomy is surgery to remove the breast. It can be used to treat breast cancer, and can reduce the chances of developing the condition in the small number of women from very high-risk families.

By removing as much breast tissue as possible, a mastectomy can reduce your risk of breast cancer by up to 95%. However, a mastectomy does not reduce the risk of developing breast cancer down to zero. It is not possible to remove every single breast cell at the time of a mastectomy.

However, like all operations, there is 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 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 procedure may not be suitable for all women. Your surgeon can discuss this with you.

Medication

Three medicines are available for women at an increased risk of breast cancer:

  • tamoxifen
  • anastrozole
  • raloxifene

Anastrozole and Raloxifene are only available to women who've 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:

  • hot flushes
  • sweating
  • feeling sick
  • tiredness
  • leg cramps

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

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

Page last reviewed: 16 May 2019
Next review due: 16 May 2022