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Birth Control or Exercise: Which One Lowers Breast Cancer Risk?

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Does Birth Control or Exercise Lower Breast Cancer Risk? Nassyrov Ruslan/PhotoSpin

Just because you’re female, you have a 33 percent chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in your life. Those odds pretty much stink, especially when lifestyle choices, your environment, and in some cases your genetic heritage, raise the risk even higher.

The truth is, there are some risk factors we can’t change.

Take age, for example. As women age, their breast cancer risk goes up due to menopause itself, and due to hormone therapy used to ease menopausal symptoms.

There are other factors you can't change. Like your age when you started your period (before age 12) or how old you were when you had your last period (older than age 55). Both raise your breast cancer risk slightly.

So does having a baby after age 30, which elevates your risk slightly. Breastfeed your baby for 18 months to two years however, and your risk diminishes slightly.

As women, it’s up to us to keep our breast cancer risk as low as possible throughout our lifetimes.

We can’t do much about biology, but we can avoid other potential mine fields, such as drinking alcohol, being obese or overweight, and not getting enough exercise.

If you are of childbearing age, you may want to ask your doctor or health professional about the risk associated with contraceptive use.

Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that women ages 20-49 who recently used some types of birth control pills in the last year increased their risk for invasive breast cancer compared to never or former users.

Researchers found that pills containing high-dose estrogen increased breast cancer risk 2.7-fold, and those containing moderate-dose estrogen increased the risk 1.6-fold.

Oral progestin pills containing ethynodiol diacetate increased the risk 2.6-fold, and triphasic combination pills containing an average of 0.75 milligrams of norethindrone increased the risk 3.1-fold.

But researcher Elisabeth F. Beaber at the Public Health Sciences Division of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center said prior studies have shown that the elevated risk seems to go back to normal over time once the pills are stopped.

“There’s numerous established health benefits associated with oral contraceptive use that must be considered,” she said, and not all birth control pills raise a person’s risk factor. For example, in this study young and middle-aged women taking birth control pills containing low-dose estrogen showed no increased risk.

Postmenopausal women can lower their risk for invasive breast cancer by being more active.

French researchers found that older women who participated in regular physical activity of modest intensity, such as walking four hours per week, for the last four years had a lower breast cancer risk than women who exercise less.

The study found exercise had a rapid impact on lowering a woman’s breast cancer risk, but any benefits just as quickly disappear if regular exercise isn’t maintained.

“As a result, postmenopausal women who exercise should be encouraged to continue and those who do not exercise should consider starting because their risk of breast cancer may decrease rapidly,” said Agnès Fournier, PhD, a researcher at Institut Gustave Roussy in Villejuif, France.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer and water sports enthusiast who lives in San Jose with her husband and two beach loving dogs. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in publications internationally.


What are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer? American Cancer Society. Accessed 8/8/14.

Postmenopausal Breast Cancer Risk Decreases Rapidly After Starting Regular Physical Activity. Jeremy Moore. AACR Press Release. 11 Aug. 2014.

Recent Recreational Physical Activity and Breast Cancer Risk in Postmenopausal Women in the E3N Cohort.Agnès Fournier, Gaël Dos Santos, Gwenaëlle Guillas, Jean Bertsch, Martine Duclos, Marie-Christine Boutron-Ruault, Françoise Clavel-Chapelon, and Sylvie Mesrine. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev; Published OnlineFirst August 11, 2014; doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-14-0150.
Abstract at http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/early/2014/07/31/1055-9965.EPI-14-0150.abstract

Recent Use of Some Birth Control Pills May Increase Breast Cancer Risk. Jeremy Moore. ACCR Press Release. 1 Aug. 2014; Recent Oral Contraceptive Use by Formulation and Breast Cancer Risk among Women 20 to 49 Years of Age. Elisabeth F. Beaber, Diana S.M. Buist, William E. Barlow, Kathleen E. Malone, Susan D. Reed, and Christopher I. Li. Cancer Res August 1, 2014 74:4078-4089; doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-13-3400. Subscription required.
Abstract at: http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/74/15/4078.abstract

Reviewed August 12, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment1 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

It is my understanding that a woman has a 33% chance of developing any kind of cancer, but the risk for breast cancer specifically is closer to 1 in 8, or about 12% over a lifetime. I was dx with stage 4 breast cancer nearly 4 years ago.

April 21, 2015 - 1:21am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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