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According to a large new study, women who carry common gene variants that are linked to breast cancer can still reduce their risk of developing this disease by following a healthy lifestyle. The discovery marks a noticeable and important shift in the cancer conversation, offering hope for anyone who believes getting cancer is inevitable and also outlining the choices necessary to avoid it.

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Researchers found that even women who had a relatively high genetic risk for cancer could dramatically lower that risk based on their lifestyle choices.

According to senior researcher Nilanjan Chatterjee, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, “Those genetic risks are not set in stone.”

We can’t keep overlooking this essential aspect of cancer prevention.

Key Lifestyle Factors To Avoid

According to the study, there are four main lifestyle factors at play: maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, limiting alcohol, and not taking hormone therapy after menopause. The researchers estimate that if all white American women followed those four guidelines, approximately 30% of breast cancer cases could be avoided entirely. Of that 30%, the vast majority would be women whose family history and genes make them more susceptible to the disease.

This study did not include women who carry the BRCA gene mutations, which significantly increase the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Instead they focused on 92 gene variants that, individually, only make a small difference in a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer; collectively, they can add up to substantial risk, and they are much more common than the rare BCRA mutations.

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But, for the women who do have the BCRA mutation, how much does lifestyle affect their chances of developing cancer?

“Lifestyle factors may be even more important for women at higher genetic risk than for those at low genetic risk,” Chatterjee said.

The findings for the study, which were published online May 26th in JAMA Oncology, were based on the records from over 40,000 women tested for 24 gene variants which were previously linked to increased risk of breast cancer. Chatterjee and his team created a model for predicting a woman’s risk of breast cancer using the genetic information provided and then assessing a few other factors, such as family history of breast cancer, the age menstruation started, and lifestyle. The researchers then added another component and estimated the effects of 68 other gene variations that the women weren’t tested for.

According to the study, overall the average 30-year-old white woman has an 11% chance of developing breast cancer by the time she reaches 80 years old. That may seem relatively low, but breast cancer is only one of many potential cancers we may develop in our lifetime. And while the odds are steeper for those women whose genes and other factors out of their control place them at higher risk, according to Chatterjee, lifestyle choices still make the biggest difference for them.

The study also suggests that even the women with the highest risks could bring their breast cancer odds down to average if they follow the four golden rules outlined above.

William Dupont, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, concludes, “The bottom line is, this study provides evidence that, on a population level, a certain number of breast cancer cases would be prevented if women did these things.”

“I don’t think women should take this to mean that they have to go ‘cold turkey’ after menopause,” he adds.

He also stressed that the model created by the study’s researchers does have limitations, so it should not be used to predict any woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.

If you’re wondering about the risk for non-white women, Chatterjee says the same general patterns would most likely apply to them as well.

Of course, these 4 lifestyle tips are important for anyone to follow, not just those who are at risk for developing breast cancer.

Other Factors That Can Lower Breast Cancer Risk

Interestingly the study didn’t factor diet into this equation, despite the abundant evidence showing how diet can directly affect our chances of developing cancer and other diseases.

Avoiding certain chemicals such as parabens and BPA is also important. Watch out for many personal care products, as they are often loaded with parabens. Specifically, women’s antiperspirant should be avoided, as it generally contains parabens and aluminum and prevents the natural detoxification process of the lymph nodes around the breast area via sweat. Avoid anti-perspirant if you can and switch to natural, paraben- and aluminum-free deodorant. For a simple armpit detox that can help prevent breast cancer, click here.

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