Protective factors

Some factors can help to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Being physically active

Various studies have shown that physical activity can reduce the risk of breast cancer.

An analysis of 35 studies found that highly active women had a 14% lower risk of developing breast cancer compared with the least active women.

Another study showed that the more active a woman is, the more she can reduce her risk of breast cancer. For example, for every 2 hours a week a woman spends doing moderate to vigorous activity, the risk of breast cancer falls by 5%.

Activity can include:

  • having a physically active job
  • recreational exercise, such as walking, cycling or playing sport
  • chores such as ironing, gardening and cleaning

The reduced risk is probably because exercise lowers levels of insulin, hormones and growth factors in the body.


Breastfeeding lowers the risk of developing breast cancer, particularly if you have your children when you are younger. The longer you breastfeed the more the risk is reduced.

It is not completely clear why this is. But the reduced risk might be because the ovaries don't produce eggs so often during breastfeeding. Or it might be because breastfeeding changes the cells in the breast so they might be more resistant to changes that lead to cancer.

Aspirin and anti inflammatory drugs

Research has shown that women who regularly take aspirin or other non steroidal anti inflammatory medicines have a slightly lower risk of developing breast cancer. There are trials in progress that will give us more information in the future.

Remember that aspirin can irritate the lining of your stomach and cause bleeding. So you should talk to your own GP before starting to take it regularly.

You shouldn't take these medicines if you have any history of stomach ulcers.

Treatment for high risk breast cancer

Some people who have family members with breast cancer have a higher risk of developing it compared to the general population. There are medicines and surgical treatments that can help to reduce the risk of breast cancer for those at a higher risk.  

Medicines for women at higher risk of breast cancer

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends that medicines be offered to some high risk women to reduce the risk of breast cancer. These are: 

  • tamoxifen for 5 years if you are pre menopausal
  • anastrozole for 5 years if you are post menopausal
  • raloxifene or tamoxifen for 5 years if you are post menopausal and you cannot take anastrozole

Your specialist doctor might also talk to you about these medicines if you have a moderate risk of breast cancer. All these drugs have side effects and are not suitable for everyone. Speak to your doctor who can tell you whether these are suitable for you. 

You do not need to take this medication if you have had surgery to reduce your risk of breast cancer. 

Surgery for high risk breast cancer

Surgery to remove both breasts may be a possible option for women at very high risk. This is known as a bilateral risk reducing mastectomy. Bilateral means both sides and mastectomy means removal of the breast. 

It is important you meet a genetic counsellor before you make a decision about having surgery. They will talk about your own personal risks and explain other options, for example screening for high risk women. Your surgeon and specialist nurse will tell you about the surgery. They will also talk about your feelings and any concerns you may have. 

During the operation the surgeon removes as much breast tissue as possible but it’s not possible to remove it all. So, although surgery lowers your risk it does not go away completely. 

You may be able to have breast reconstruction during the surgery, or at a later date. This is surgery to make new breasts using tissue from elsewhere in your body or implants. 

Choosing to have risk reducing surgery can be a difficult time for you and your family, so it is important to ask questions. Your doctors and nurses will support you when making your decisions and throughout your treatment.

Speak to your doctor if you have family members with breast cancer and you think you might be at risk of developing it.

Diet and alcohol

A healthy diet and limiting the amount of alcohol you have is recommended. It may help to reduce your risk of breast cancer. 

Try to keep to a healthy weight especially if you have been through the menopause.

Last reviewed: 
24 Jan 2020
  • Physical activity and risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and ischemic stroke events: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013
    H H Kyu and others 
    BMJ, 2016. 345

  • Familial breast cancer: classification, care and managing breast cancer and related risks in people with a family history of breast cancer

    The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), last updated November 2019

  • Estimates of benefits and harms of prophylactic use of aspirin in the general population
    J Cuzick and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2015. Volume 26, Issue 1, Pages 47-57

  • Use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and reduced breast cancer risk among overweight women.
    Y Cui and Others
    Breast Cancer Reaearch and Treatment, 2014. Volume 146, Issue 2, Pages 439-46

  • Physical activity and risk of breast cancer: a meta-analysis of prospective studies
    Y Wu and others
    Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, 2013. Volume, 137, Issue 3, Pages 869-82

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact with details of the particular risk or cause you are interested in.

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