How can I reduce my risk of breast cancer?

A photo of Naveen Puri
Medical Director, Bupa UK Insurance
02 February 2024
Next review due February 2027

Breast cancer starts in the cells of the breast tissue. It’s the most common type of cancer in the UK, with 3 in 10 women diagnosed each year. The good news is that there are many things you can do to help lower your chance of getting breast cancer.

Here, I discuss the main risk factors for breast cancer and suggest some tips to reduce your risk.

woman exercising outdoors

What are the main risk factors for breast cancer?

Breast cancer happens when cells in the breast tissue become abnormal and form tumours. If left untreated, they can spread to other parts of your body and make you very unwell.

We don’t know for sure why some people get breast cancer. Your risk for breast cancer may be linked to a combination of genetic, hormonal and lifestyle factors. Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get cancer. But it’s important to be aware of what can put you at greater risk, and to examine your breasts frequently.

Here are some of the main risk factors for developing breast cancer.

  • Family history of cancer – if your parent or sibling has had breast or ovarian cancer, you are more likely to get breast cancer.
  • Personal history of cancer – if you’ve had breast cancer before, you’re more likely to get it again.
  • Changes in your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes – these genes help to prevent tumours from growing in your body. Your risk of cancer increases if you have changes (mutations) in these genes.
  • Getting older – your risk of getting breast cancer increases with age. Eight out of 10 women diagnosed are over the age of 50.
  • Being overweight after the menopause.
  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – if you’ve taken hormone replacement therapy (including both oestrogen and progestogen) for five years or more, your risk for breast cancer may be higher. Oestrogen and progesterone are reproductive hormones. Having too much of these hormones could cause breast cancer. Your risk could also be increased by taking the contraceptive pill.
  • Drinking alcohol – drinking alcohol increases your risk of breast cancer. Studies have shown that your risk rises with the more alcohol you drink.

What are the early warning signs of breast cancer?

The most common sign of breast cancer is finding a new lump or thickening in your breast. You should regularly check your breasts and armpits for these changes. Other things to look out for include:

  • a lump or pain in your arm pit
  • a rash, redness, inflammation or crusting on or around one or both of your nipples
  • a change in the size or shape of your breast
  • a change in your nipple’s shape, such as sunken or inverted nipples
  • a change in the look and texture of your skin over or around the breast
  • discharge or bleeding from one or both nipples

Having these signs doesn’t mean that you have breast cancer. Most breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous).

But, if you notice a lump or unusual change in your breast, it’s important to get this checked by your doctor. If they think you need further assessment, they may refer you to a specialist breast clinic. You may also be asked to go to a breast clinic for breast screening. The following video explains the breast screening process. 

What are five ways to reduce my risk of breast cancer?

Did you know that almost a quarter of breast cancer cases in the UK could be prevented? Here are some lifestyle choices you can make which may help to reduce your risk of breast cancer.

  • Keep a healthy weight. Research has shown that keeping a healthy weight can reduce the risk of 13 types of cancers, including breast cancer. You can maintain a healthy weight by doing regular exercise and eating a balanced diet.
  • Be physically active. Regular exercise helps you to keep a healthy weight. It also lowers levels of hormones and inflammation in your body. Research suggests that this could reduce your risk of breast cancer.
  • Drink less alcohol. You can lower your risk by drinking less alcohol.
  • Stop smoking. Some evidence suggests that smoking can cause breast cancer. Although, we need more research to be sure of this.
  • Check your breasts. Make sure you regularly check your breasts to feel for any lumps or changes.

Research suggests that breastfeeding can also help to protect against breast cancer. Your doctor can provide more advice on ways to manage your risk of breast cancer.

What diet is best to help prevent breast cancer?

You can lower your risk of cancer by eating a balanced diet.

For people who’ve had breast cancer before, foods high in fibre have been recommended to lower the chance of the cancer coming back. High-fibre foods include wholegrain foods such as oats and brown rice. They also include pulses, such as lentils and beans, as well as fruits, vegetables, and potatoes with their skins on.

Try and avoid foods high in saturated fat if you can. These include butter, processed meats, full-fat dairy products and chocolate. You can replace these with unsaturated fats, such as oily fish, avocados, and nuts.

More research is needed to find out which foods can increase your cancer risk.

It’s important to be aware of the risk factors for breast cancer, and things you could do to reduce your risk. If you’re worried about your risk of breast cancer, speak to your doctor for advice and support. Charities such as Cancer Research and Breast Cancer Now can also provide you with support.

If you’re showing symptoms of cancer, our direct access service aims to help you see someone as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, and depending on your symptoms, you may not need a GP referral to see a consultant. Learn more today.

A photo of Naveen Puri
Dr Naveen Puri
Medical Director, Bupa UK Insurance



Annie Fry, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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