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Exercise & Weight

Learn about the effects of diet, lifestyle, and surgical menopause on cancer risk and quality-of-life for people with HBOC.


Regular exercise provides many health benefits and may decrease cancer risk. Research shows that exercise lowers estrogen levels, which may reduce breast cancer risk.

One study in women with BRCA mutations showed those who were most active during their teens developed breast cancer at a later age than mutation carriers who were sedentary at a young age.  

A 2009 study from the Netherlands examined exercise in 725 BRCA mutation carriers, of which 218 had a diagnosed breast cancer.5 This study found a  trend, in which women who exercised before age 30 reduced risk of breast cancer, but the result did not reach statistical significance.

The general consensus from these studies is that a well-balanced diet combined with exercise to maintain appropriate weight seems to decrease cancer incidence among BRCA mutation carriers. Eating a variety of vegetables and maintaining weight stability later in life are both important, as significant weight gain, not actual size, seems to increase the likelihood of being affected with cancer.

Perhaps the best information on lifestyle choices and BRCA-associated cancers will come from a prospective study in Dublin. The study will follow unaffected individuals with BRCA mutations and will track body composition, signs of metabolic syndrome, physical activity, and diet, and will collect blood samples for future use. The benefits of a prospective study include: 1) having pre-diagnosis samples to identify biomarkers of earliest-stage disease, and 2) having an accurate real-time assessment of weight gain, activity, and diet instead of requiring participants to recall these numbers in a future survey.

Exercise also provides many health benefits, and is especially helpful for individuals who develop lymphedema, fluid buildup and swelling that develops in a limb or other part of the body when the lymphatic system is disrupted by surgery, trauma, or radiation. A common byproduct of breast surgery, lymphedema may develop in the arm or hand on the treated side of the body. The swelling and impaired lymph function can cause pain, infection, and loss of mobility. Overuse or injury can cause lymphedema to flare up, and swelling may worsen over time without consistent management.

Patients with lymphedema have traditionally been advised to avoid heavy exertion and using the lymphatic arm to lift anything weighing more than 5 pounds. However, solid research has now reversed that recommendation. A study for women with lymphedema showed that patients who participated in a specially-designed weightlifting program increased their strength and had fewer swelling flare-ups compared to the control patients. Experts now recommend carefully controlled weightlifting to effectively use muscle and build strength so the arm or affected limb becomes less prone to injury and reduces lymphatic occurrences.


Updated 03/26/15

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