It is still the most common cancer among Singaporean women – and the deadliest. This World Cancer Day (Feb 4), protect yourself with the best and very latest advice.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

It is still the most common cancer among Singaporean women – and the deadliest. This World Cancer Day (Feb 4), protect yourself with the best and very latest advice.

Over the past 40 years, the incidence of breast cancer in Singapore has more than doubled – from 25 to 65 per 100,000 women. The good news is that, when detected in the early stages, there is a high chance of survival. And like many things, prevention is better than cure. Here’s the best and latest advice for protecting yourself.

Eat (the right) dairy

Women who regularly consume yogurt have a 39 percent lower risk of breast cancer, according to new findings from Roswell Park Cancer Institute. But those who eat more hard cheeses, including American and cheddar, have a 53 percent higher risk of breast cancer. “Yogurt might modify levels of gut bacteria that help protect against cancer development,”says lead researcher and dietitian Susan McCann. “Cheese, on the other hand, is high in fat, and some studies have found a connection between breast cancer and higher fat intake,” she says. “Or perhaps women who eat more cheese have less healthy diets overall.” 

More research needs to be done before experts can make any blanket recommendations, though, says Dr Jennifer Litton, an associate professor of breast medical oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. But it makes sense to eat yogurt and watch your cheese intake. In the study, having three or four servings of yogurt a week was linked to a drop in breast cancer risk, whereas eating more than that amount of cheese raised the odds.

HIIT it twice a week 

High-intensity workouts can cut your chances of breast cancer by up to 17 percent. “Vigorous exercise reduces body fat, which lowers oestrogen levels and decreases the risk of developing an oestrogen-sensitive cancer,” says Dr Carmen Calfa, a breast medical oncologist at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami. 

“It also lowers the amount of insulin in the bloodstream. This is important because the hormone stimulates the survival and spread of tumour cells. Working out reduces inflammation and activates natural killer cells – two things that may protect against cancer. All it takes is 75 minutes a week of pushing yourself, Dr Calfa says. You’ll know you’re in the right intensity zone if you can gasp out only a few words at a time. An alternative is 150 minutes of weekly moderate exercise.

Say yes to soya

There’s been a lot of confusion about soya, and no wonder. Some studies have shown that the isoflavones it contains can increase the risk of breast cancer. Others found that soya has no effect and may even decrease your odds of developing breast cancer. 

Finally, the majority of research now indicates that soya is okay. In fact, one recent Tufts University study of women with the disease showed that soya foods are actually associated with improved chances of survival. 

“Soya isoflavones have anti-carcinogenic properties. They inhibit cell proliferation and reduce inflammation and oxidative stress,” says Dr Fang Fang Zhang, the study author. So, go ahead and have soya milk, tofu and edamame.

Choose containers carefully 

Bisphenol A (BPA) – a chemical used to make hard plastics like reusable water bottles and food containers – activates a molecule called HOTAIR, which has been linked to increased breast cancer risk, according to a study in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. It simulates the effects of the hormone oestrogen, which can fuel some types of breast cancer, says the study’s author Subhrangsu Mandal. 

And it’s not just BPA. Bisphenol S, commonly used in BPA-free plastics, may also increase breast cancer risk. While the experts say there still isn’t enough research to prove conclusively that BPA can lead to breast cancer, they say that it’s smart to minimise your exposure to plastics as much as possible. Instead, use bottles and food containers made of stainless steel and glass, Subhrangsu advises.

Go for stainless steel and glass water bottles instead of BPA-free plastic.

Ask your doc this important question

The density of your breasts can directly affect your breast cancer risk, but unless you query your physician, you may never find out if this is an issue for you. 

Younger women naturally have denser breasts because the tissue is made up of milk glands and ducts, which are necessary for breastfeeding, says Dr Sagar Sardesai, a breast medical oncologist at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

“As women enter perimenopause – around the age of 40 – the breasts should become fatty and less dense,” he adds. However, 40 percent of women continue to have dense breasts. That’s a concern as those over 45, whose breasts are more than 75 percent dense, have an increased risk of breast cancer, Dr Sardesai says. The tissue also makes mammograms difficult to read, and tumours may go undetected.

If you’re 45 or older, ask your doctor how dense your breasts are, Dr Sardesai says. If you find out that your breasts are more than 75 percent dense, you may want to consider alternate breast cancer screening methods, like a breast MRI or a 3-D mammogram. Both are far better at spotting tumours in dense breast tissue than regular mammograms.