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Breast cancer protective factors

Men and women discussing breast cancer

This page tells you about factors that can help to protect people against breast cancer. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Possible breast cancer protective factors

Some things lower the risk of breast cancer such as having a generally healthy lifestyle, including being physically active, and maintaining a healthy body weight. Statistically, if you breastfeed you are at less risk of developing breast cancer, particularly if you have your children when you are younger.

Some research suggests that people with coeliac disease have a lower risk of getting breast cancer.

Drugs to prevent breast cancer

There is research into using drugs to prevent breast cancer. Trials show that the drug tamoxifen can lower breast cancer risk in women at high risk. But there are concerns about side effects for women who are otherwise healthy. We know from other research that women taking aspirin or other non steroid anti inflammatories (such as ibuprofen) have a small reduction in risk of breast cancer. But you shouldn’t start taking these medicines without talking to your GP as they can cause other health problems.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About breast cancer section.

 

 

Being physically active

We know from research that physical activity can help to prevent breast cancer. Studies have found a protective effect of about 15 to 20% in women who take half an hour of exercise 5 times a week. So being active may lower your risk of breast cancer by about a fifth. This is probably because physical activity lowers oestrogen and testosterone levels and can delay the start of periods.

 

Breastfeeding

Statistics show that if you breastfeed you are less at risk of developing breast cancer, particularly if you have your children when you are younger. We don't know exactly why this is. It may be because your ovaries don't produce eggs so often when you are breastfeeding. Or it may be because breastfeeding changes the cells in the breast and may make them more resistant to the changes that lead to cancer.

 

Diet

A healthy diet may help to prevent breast cancer. Look at the page about diet and breast cancer for more information.

 

Aspirin and anti inflammatory drugs

Research has shown that women regularly using aspirin or other non steroidal anti inflammatory medicines probably have a small reduction in their risk of breast cancer. Remember though that aspirin can irritate the lining of your stomach and cause bleeding. So you should talk to your own GP before starting to take it regularly. You shouldn't take it if you have any history of stomach ulcers.

 

Medicines to prevent breast cancer

Some medicines can help to prevent breast cancer. Women who have a family history of breast cancer are at a higher risk of developing it than other women in the population. Taking medicines such as anastrozole, tamoxifen or raloxifene for 5 years can reduce the risk of breast cancer in women at moderate or high risk.

Recent research showed that if 1,000 women at high risk of breast cancer took anastrozole for 5 years, it prevented 35 cases of breast cancer. In women taking tamoxifen, 21 breast cancers would be prevented.

Speak to your doctor if you have family members with breast cancer and you think you might be at risk of developing it.

 

Coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is a disease of the small bowel. In people with coeliac disease, their body has an immune reaction to gluten, a protein found in rye, wheat and barley. This causes inflammation, which over time can damage the lining of the small bowel. This makes it difficult for the bowel to absorb the nutrients we need from our food. Symptoms of coeliac disease include bloating and discomfort in the tummy (abdomen), diarrhoea, a low red blood cell count (anaemia) and tiredness. People with coeliac disease have to stick to a gluten free diet.

Some research suggests that people with coeliac disease have a lower risk of getting breast cancer. A study looked into why this might be the case. The study reported in 2012. The research team found that women with coeliac disease had some factors that increase and some factors that decrease the risk of breast cancer developing. They suggest that the reduced risk of breast cancer is related to menstrual and reproductive factors. You can read the results of the coeliac disease and breast cancer risk study on our clinical trials database.

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Updated: 15 December 2014