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Article: Can lifestyle changes impact breast cancer risk?

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Smoking                  Physical activity
Alcohol                                Questions for your doctor                
Weight Guidelines
Diet Resources


In her New York Times article, “You Can Take Steps to Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk,” author Jane Brody outlines lifestyle changes women can make to lower their risk of breast cancer(1).

Smoking and breast cancer

According to Brody, one of the most important things women can do to reduce their risk of breast cancer is not smoke. She cites a study of more than 100,000 women conducted in northern Europe that compared nonsmokers to those who smoked 10+ cigarettes a day for 20 or more years(2). The women who smoked had a one third higher risk of developing invasive breast cancer than those who did not smoke. In addition, girls who started smoking before age 15 were nearly 50% more likely to get breast cancer. 

In her article, Brody shares data from an editorial in The Journal of Clinical Oncology that outlines data that supports the conclusion that as many as 20,000 women in the U.S. continue to smoke even after a breast cancer diagnosis as well as data that show that smoking can have a negative effect on how well treatment (chemotherapy and radiation) will work for breast cancer patients.

Avoiding alcohol

Like smoking, drinking alcohol can impact breast cancer risk. Studies have shown that women who consume 2-5 drinks a day are 40% more likely to get breast cancer than nondrinkers. Even one drink a day can raise a woman’s cancer risk by almost 7%.

Alcohol use can also affect hormone levels. Increased levels of certain hormones can increase breast cancer risk in both pre- and post-menopausal women. And for women diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, consuming 3-4 drinks a week can increase their risk of recurrence especially in post-menopausal or overweight women. Brody states that moderation is key when considering alcohol’s potential to increase breast cancer risk. 

Watching your weight

Studies have shown that as body mass index (BMI) increases, so does a woman’s risk of breast cancer. This link is especially true if the extra weight is around the waist. Abdominal fat can produce growth factors and hormones that can stimulate breast cancer cells to grow. Maintaining a healthy weight is important both before and after a cancer diagnosis because being overweight not only increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer, but also can lower her chance of surviving the disease.


Paying attention to diet can lower women’s breast cancer risk. Following a heart-healthy diet can reduce risk of many diseases, including breast cancer. Healthy eating can help women maintain a healthy weight. Fiber-rich vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are good choices while limiting proteins high in saturated fats (red meat), as well as sugar-sweetened foods and drinks.

Brody shares information about some other specific food choices:

  • Some studies have found the lowest risk of breast cancer among women who ate the most fruits and vegetables. However, the greatest protection was found when these healthy eating habits started early in life, not after a breast cancer diagnosis.
  • Carotenoids – the orange colored plant pigments found in sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squash, cantaloupe and tomatoes – as well as dark-green, leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale are especially protective against breast cancer.
  • Soy contains isoflavones that may play a protective role against breast cancer. Asian women -- who eat soy throughout their lives -- have one of the lowest breast cancer rates in the world. However, soy does not seem to show any benefit in women who eat a Western diet. Brody also suggested avoiding isoflavone supplements, which contain a high-concentration of plant-based .
  • Finally, Brody points out that a number of studies have shown a diet high in saturated fats (red meat and processed meats) can increase cancer risk and that the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends limiting red meat to two meals a week and avoiding processed meats when possible. The ACS also suggests limiting high-fat dairy foods such as cheese, ice cream, and whole milk because they can contain hormones that may stimulate cancer cell growth.

Staying physically active

Many studies have shown that women who exercise regularly have a lower risk of breast cancer. In addition, staying active after a breast cancer diagnosis can lower your chance of dying from the disease. According to Brody, even simple exercise such as brisk walking at least 30 minutes a day can offer benefit. 

What does this mean for me?

It is important to understand that this article shares actions individuals can take to lower their breast cancer risk, but not necessarily prevent breast cancer entirely. There is no direct cause-and-effect relationship between these lifestyle factors and cancer prevention. While we do know that such things as eating a heart-healthy diet can reduce the risk of many diseases, not just breast cancer, there is no way to completely eliminate breast cancer risk.  Even if you have no family history, no known , do not smoke, drink in moderation, and maintain a healthy diet and weight, you may still be diagnosed with breast cancer. Finally, little is known about the degree to which the lifestyle changes described in this article impact risk for individuals who are already at high risk due to family history, an , or a previous breast cancer diagnosis.

Patients should discuss their individual breast cancer risk and how changes in lifestyle may effect that risk with their health care provider. 

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Posted 9/21/17


New York Times: You Can Take Steps to Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk.

Parker BA and Pierce JP. Importance of Smoking Cessation to Reduce Breast Cancer Mortality. J Clin Onc.2016. 34(12):1295-6.


FORCE receives funding from industry sponsors, including companies that manufacture cancer drugs, tests and devices. All XRAYS articles are written independently of any sponsor and are reviewed by members of our Scientific Advisory Board prior to publication to assure scientific integrity.

This article is relevant for:

Any woman concerned about her risk for breast cancer

This article is also relevant for:


people with breast cancer

healthy people with average cancer risk

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Expert Guidelines
Expert Guidelines

The American Cancer Society (ACS) guidelines on exercise, nutrition and weight for cancer prevention recommend the following: 

Diet and nutrition

  • Follow a healthy eating pattern, including:
    • foods that are high in nutrients in amounts that help you acheive and maintain a healthy body weight.
    • a variety of vegetables, fiber-rich legumes (beans and peas) and whole fruits in a variety of colors. Consume at least 2½ to 3 cups of vegetables and 1½ to 2 cups of fruit each day, depending on your calorie requirements. 
    • whole grains rather than refined grains. At least half of the grains you eat should be whole grains. 
  • A healthy eating pattern that limits or does not include:
    • red and processed meats.
    • sugar-sweetened beverages. 
    • highly processed foods and refined grain products.
  • It is best not to drink alcohol. People who choose to drink alcohol should:
    • have no more than 1 drink per day (women) or 2 drinks per day (men).


  • Exercise regularly.
    • Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (equal to a brisk walk) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (heart rate is increased, breathing is faster and you are sweating) each week, preferably spread throughout the week.
    • Physical activity has been shown to lower the risk of several types of cancer, including breast, endometrial, and colon. It also reduces the risk of other serious diseases including diabetes and heart disease.


  • Achieve and keep a healthy weight.
    • Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for many cancers, including breast, colon, endometrial and pancreatic. You can control your weight through regular exercise and healthy eating.

Other experts, including the following, also provide guidelines for exercise, nutrition and health: 

Updated: 07/19/2022

Questions To Ask Your Doctor
Questions To Ask Your Doctor

  • What is my risk of breast cancer?
  • Given my risk, what are some things I can do to lower that risk or prevent a recurrence?
  • What can I do to help my children reduce their risk of breast cancer?
  • I have smoked for a long time and I am having trouble quitting. What can I do?
  • I have smoked for a long time—how will quitting now make a difference to my health?

Open Clinical Trials
Open Clinical Trials

The following are studies focused on nutrition and cancer prevention. 

Multiple cancers

Breast cancer

Colorectal cancer

Visit our Featured Research Page and Research Search and Enroll Tool to find additional studies enrolling people with or at high risk for cancer.

Updated: 05/28/2023

Find Experts
Find Experts

The following resources can help you locate a nutritionist near you or via telehealth

Finding nutritionists

  • You can find a registered dietician in your area through, the website for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Search for nutritionists by specialty, including "cancer," "weight management" and "heart health."

Related experts

  • The YMCA has a free program called Livestrong at the YMCA. This program includes a free 12-week membership and fitness training with certified exercise experts. You can search by zip code for a program near you.  

Other ways to find experts

  • Register for the FORCE Message Boards and post on the Find a Specialist board to connect with other people who share your situation. 
  • The National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer centers have specialists to manage the symptoms and side effects from cancer prevention or treatment. 
  • FORCE partners with Savor Health® to provide free, personalized, evidence-based nutrition support 24/7 and “on-demand" through their text-based Intelligent Nutrition Assistant (Ina®). You can subscribe here


Updated: 11/20/2023

Find Experts
Find Experts

The YMCA has a free program called Livestrong at the YMCA. This program includes a free 12-week membership and fitness training with certified exercise experts. You can search by zip code for a program near you.  

Updated: 08/18/2023

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