Reducing your risk of breast cancer

Some of the things that can help to reduce the risk of breast cancer include:

  • keeping a healthy weight
  • a healthy diet
  • low amounts of alcohol
  • being physically active
  • breastfeeding
  • medicines such as aspirin or anti inflammatory drugs
  • surgery or hormone treatment if you are at high risk of developing breast cancer
  • having children

Weight, diet and alcohol

Research shows that keeping a healthy weight reduces the risk of 13 different types of cancer including breast cancer. Ways to keep a healthy weight include being physically active and eating a healthy, balanced diet.

Research also shows that cutting down the amount of alcohol you drink lowers your risk of developing breast cancer. There is no safe level of alcohol, so the more you cut down the more you can reduce your risk.

Does being physically active reduce your risk of breast cancer?

Being physically active can reduce your risk of breast cancer as it can help you to keep a healthy weight. But it can also prevent breast cancer in ways not related to weight.

Activity can include anything that makes you a bit warmer and slightly out of breath and your heart beating faster. Here are some examples:

  • having a physically active job
  • recreational exercise, such as walking, cycling or playing sport
  • chores such as ironing, gardening and cleaning

The reduced risk is possibly because exercise lowers levels of insulin Open a glossary item, hormones Open a glossary item and growth factors Open a glossary item in the body.

Can breastfeeding reduce the risk of breast cancer?

Breastfeeding lowers the risk of developing breast cancer, particularly if you have your children when you are younger. The longer you breastfeed the more the risk is reduced.

It is not completely clear why this is. But the reduced risk might be because the ovaries Open a glossary item don't produce eggs so often during breastfeeding. Or it might be because breastfeeding changes the cells in the breast so they might be more resistant to changes that lead to cancer.

Aspirin and anti inflammatory drugs

Research has shown that women who regularly take aspirin or other non steroidal anti inflammatory Open a glossary item medicines have a slightly lower risk of developing breast cancer. There are trials in progress that will give us more information in the future.

Remember that aspirin can irritate the lining of your stomach and cause bleeding. So you should talk to your GP before starting to take it regularly.

You shouldn't take these medicines if you have any history of stomach ulcers.

Treatments for those at high risk of breast cancer

Some people who have family members with breast cancer have a higher risk of developing it compared to the general population. There are medicines and surgical treatments that can help to reduce the risk of breast cancer for those at a higher risk. 

Medicines for women at moderate or higher risk of breast cancer

Doctors may offer medicines to some moderate and high risk women to reduce the risk of breast cancer. These are: 

  • tamoxifen for 5 years if you are pre menopausal
  • anastrozole for 5 years if you are post menopausal
  • raloxifene or tamoxifen for 5 years if you are post menopausal and you can’t take anastrozole

All these medicines have side effects and are not suitable for everyone. Speak to your doctor who can tell you whether these are suitable for you. 

You do not need to take this medication if you have had surgery to reduce your risk of breast cancer. 

Surgery for high risk breast cancer

Surgery to remove both breasts may be a possible option for women at very high risk. This is known as a bilateral risk reducing mastectomy. Bilateral means both sides and mastectomy means removal of the breast. 

It is important you meet a genetic Open a glossary item counsellor before you make a decision about having surgery. They will talk about your own personal risks and explain other options, for example screening for high risk women. Your surgeon and specialist nurse will tell you about the surgery. They will also talk about your feelings and any concerns you may have. 

During the operation the surgeon removes as much breast tissue as possible but it’s not possible to remove it all. So, although surgery lowers your risk it does not go away completely. 

You may be able to have breast reconstruction Open a glossary item during the surgery, or at a later date. This is surgery to make new breasts using tissue from elsewhere in your body or implants. 

Choosing to have risk reducing surgery can be a difficult time for you and your family, so it is important to ask questions. Your doctors and nurses will support you when making your decisions and throughout your treatment.

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

Does having children reduce your risk of breast cancer?

Whether you can have children or when you have them may not be something you can control.

Having children and in particular having a child at younger age can slightly lower your risk of developing breast cancer. The risk gets lower the more children you have.

  • Physical activity, sedentary time and breast cancer risk: A Mendelian randomization study
    S C Dixon-Suen and others
    British Journal of Sports Medicine, October 2022. Volume 56, Issue 20, Pages 1157 to 1170

  • Familial breast cancer: classification, care and managing breast cancer and related risks in people with a family history of breast cancer
    The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), last updated November 2019

  • Regular use of aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and breast cancer risk for women at familial or genetic risk: a cohort study
    Rebecca D. Kehm and others
    Breast Cancer Research, 2019. Volume 21, Issue 52

  • Taking tamoxifen to reduce the chance of developing breast cancer Decision aid for premenopausal women at high risk. Patient decision aid
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), March 2017. Last updated May 2021

  • Evidence Update on the Relationship between Diet and the Most Common Cancers from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study: A Systematic Review
    E Ubago-Guisado and others
    Nutrients, October 2021. Volume 13, Issue 10, Page 3582

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact with details of the particular risk or cause you are interested in.

Last reviewed: 
30 Jun 2023
Next review due: 
30 Jun 2026

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