Controlling some environmental factors can reduce breast cancer risk.
Controlling some environmental factors can reduce breast cancer risk. iStockphoto.com
If you're a woman looking to cut your risk for breast cancer, the advice can seem full of contradictions and unanswered questions.
Should I get a mammogram or not? How can drinking alcohol be good for the heart but bad for my breasts? Is it safe to drink water from a plastic bottle?
A report out this week aims to provide some answers. Breast Cancer and the Environment: A Life Course Approach is a consensus review of the evidence. from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. The work was sponsored by Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
The report is about as dense as you'd expect of a thick document covering all the environmental factors that could possibly affect breast cancer risk.
But the expert committee pulled some of the most useful bits from the tome and repackaged them in a Q-and-A booklet that acknowledges the challenges involved in making personal health decisions based on statistics and probability.
The closest thing to a cheat sheet is a table that outlines nine of the the most effective things a woman can do to reduce her risk of breast cancer.
Most of these tips are about cutting back or avoiding risk factors. Drink less, avoid inappropriate medical radiation and don't smoke, to name a few.
While there are factors that sound scientific evidence has classified as good (exercise) or bad (unnecessary CT scans), the report acknowledges it's not easy to make a ruling on many of the products and processes we encounter.
The science gives a mixed view of cigarettes. Some major reviews show smoking causes breast cancer, while others say the evidence of a link between the two is limited. Since smoking is linked to many other cancers and heart disease, it's probably a good thing to eliminate in any event.
The report also lists factors that may be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, but where the studies aren't persuasive. Examples include nighttime shift work and exposure to benzene.
A few suspected cancer-causers are nothing to worry about, including hair dyes and cellphones, the report says.
This IOM aims to point women in the right direction with this report, but even its strongest advice is tempered with reminders that there are no guarantees. "The potential risk reductions from any of these actions for any individual woman will vary and may be modest," the report says.