Can Exercise Save You from Breast Cancer?

By Kateri Kane PT, DPT

Many people in this country have either known an immediate relative or a friend who has battled breast cancer.  This particular cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis in women and the second leading cause of cancer death following lung cancer.  Risk factors include:

Key Risk Factors

Additional Risk Factors

Gender (female)

History of benign breast disease

Age 60 or older

Ethnicity (whites: increased incidence; blacks: more deaths)

Age at first menstruation (increase risk if <12 years old), especially when combined with late menopause (>55 years)

Late menopause (>50 years)

Nulliparity, infertility; 1st child born after age 30

Diethylstilbestrol exposure

Age at first live birth (increased risk if >35 years)

Alcohol (?2 drinks/day of beer, wine, hard liquor)

2 or more first degree relatives (mother, sisters, or daughters) with breast or ovarian cancer

Postmenopausal weight gain (20-30 lb. or more since age 18); obesity

Male relative with breast cancer

High doses of chest radiation before age 30 (e.g. Hodgkin’s disease)

Number of previous breast biopsies (whether positive or negative)

Environmental exposures (under investigation)

High-fat diet

As least 1 biopsy with atypical (ductal or lobular) hyperplasia or radial stars

Long term use of first-generation oral contraceptives before 1975 (high does e.g. EstrAval) or recent (last 5 years) combined hormone replacement therapy

Previous personal history of breast cancer

High bone density (postmenopausal women); circulating estrogen promotes bone formation

To check out your risk, click here.

Several of these risk factors are modifiable, meaning that your lifestyle can affect your level of risk for getting breast cancer.  Many studies have been performed particularly on the effects of weight gain as a risk factor.  The American Cancer Society found that 20-30 pounds of weight gain after the age of 18 produces a 40% greater likelihood of developing breast cancer than for women who either gain only 5 pounds or have been overweight since childhood.  So what can you do to reduce your risk?  45-60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity 5+ days per week is recommended.  For those of you who don’t think you have time to exercise 5 days a week, activity does not just mean exercising on the elliptical at your local gym.  Moderate to heavy yard work or house work could also be classified under this description.  The key term here is ACTIVITY.

But what if you already have breast cancer? Is exercise still recommended?  The answer is yes!  A meta-analysis, one of the most highly reliable forms of research, was performed on the effects of exercise on breast cancer patients and survivors.  This study found that women with breast cancer who participated in exercise had significant improvements in quality of life as well as physical functioning, peak oxygen consumption, and reduced symptoms of fatigue.

The take home message here is that exercise is good for both preventing breast cancer and for managing your condition if you already have it.  Different levels of activity may be recommended depending on your stage of cancer, so if you are unsure at what level of intensity you should be exercising, contact a health care professional for guidance.


Goodman & Fuller’s Pathology: Implications for the Physical Therapist

Canadian Medical Journal

Journal of the National Cancer Institute


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