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Is reducing your risk of breast cancer as easy as riding a bike? FITNESS tracked down one woman who knows -- Leslie Bernstein, PhD, former athlete, AFLAC chair in cancer research, and professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. She's the lead researcher on groundbreaking studies that show, definitively, that exercise is one great way to protect yourself from the disease. Her more than 20 years of research have found that women who walk, bike, or do any moderate workout regularly have about a 20 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those who don't. "Physical activity -- just 30 minutes a day -- is the easiest way to reduce your risk," says Bernstein.The FITNESS Magazine Guide to Healthy Breasts and Reducing Your Cancer Risk
In the early 1980s, Bernstein was working on a study that looked at the role hormones play in breast cancer. She and her colleagues discovered that women at high risk for the disease had more estrogen in their blood than those at low risk. "We asked ourselves, what could explain this?" she says. "Because I'm a former competitive swimmer, I know that exercise can disrupt the menstrual cycle and even stop menstruation, and I thought it might also affect hormone levels associated with breast cancer. In the first definitive studies on the issue, we found that it does."
Why working out protects us. Physical activity burns fat and also affects ovarian function in premenopausal women, lowering estrogen and progesterone in the blood, explains Bernstein. High circulating levels of these hormones may raise a woman's cancer risk by prompting the breast cells to multiply. In addition, women who exercise regularly have less insulin in their bloodstream; this may also lower levels of female hormones.
Rx for good health. "Exercise reduces your risk not only of breast cancer but also of cardiovascular disease and diabetes," says Bernstein. "Three to four hours a week of brisk walking or any moderate activity, like biking, can help protect you."
It's not just her job, it's her mission. "I've lost friends to breast cancer," says Bernstein. "That keeps me motivated. And given the number of women who are and will be affected by the disease, I know this is something I want to spend my life doing."
By Linda Marsa1. Better Detection
Digital mammography is up to 22 percent more accurate than traditional mammograms in detecting cancer in younger women or in women who have dense breast tissue, according to a 2005 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Digital cameras capture the images electronically and store them in a computer, allowing technicians to enhance and magnify them. Digital mammography is available at only about 8 percent of imaging centers nationwide; however, many university-affiliated teaching hospitals have the equipment, so ask your doctor about getting a referral to one of them. If you can't get the digital test, go for a traditional mammogram instead.2. Reducing the Odds of Recurrence
There's new hope for the one in four breast cancer patients diagnosed every year with the highly aggressive type of breast cancer HER2. In two studies published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that the drug Herceptin cut the risk of recurrence almost in half and reduced death by about 30 percent in patients with tumors that were localized in the breast or that had spread to only a few lymph nodes.3. No More Needles Chemotherapy
A new genetic test called Oncotype DX may save approximately 25,000 women a year from unnecessary chemo. The test analyzes a patient's breast cancer tissue for 21 genes linked to recurrence and then calculates a score ranging from 0 to 100. Anything under 18 is considered low risk. The test is for women whose tumors are fueled by estrogen and have not spread to the lymph nodes -- about half of the breast cancer patients diagnosed in the United States each year. If these women take Tamoxifen after their surgery, about 85 percent won't have a recurrence within 10 years. Oncotype DX is expensive -- $3,460 -- though Medicare and many insurers will pay for it.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2006.