Understanding Risk Reduction
What is risk reduction?
Every day, we take steps to prevent unwanted events from happening. For example, we brush our teeth to prevent cavities. However, even when we brush our teeth daily, we can still get cavities.
We do what we can to improve our chances of a good outcome, but we don’t always have complete control. The best we can do is lower our risk.
In the health setting, “prevention” mainly refers to lowering the risk of getting a disease (including cancer and other chronic diseases) rather than completely removing the risk. Since there’s no sure way to prevent breast cancer, we use terms such as “risk reduction” and “risk-lowering.”
Risk factors and risk reduction
Cancer tends to be caused by a combination of factors. Some things we may be able to control (such as exercise). Others are out of our control (such as age) and some are still unknown.
Since many factors affect cancer risk and we can control only some of them, we can’t avoid some amount of risk. For example, the most common risk factors for breast cancer, being born female and getting older, are not things you can control.
Most risk factors for breast cancer that we have some control over are linked to only a small increase or decrease in risk.
This means there’s no one behavior that will prevent breast cancer. It also means there’s no one factor that will cause it. Even a person with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 inherited gene mutation doesn’t have a 100 percent chance of getting breast cancer.
Most people diagnosed with breast cancer are at average risk and we don’t know what caused the cancer.
Because the disease process is so complex, it’s hard to know how a certain set of risk factors will affect any one person. When we look at groups of people it becomes clearer.
For example, if we find there’s a 20 percent decrease in risk of breast cancer in a certain group of people, we can predict there will be a 20 percent decrease in a similar group. What we don’t know is which people in the group will get the risk reduction benefit.
Who benefits from risk reduction?
It’s hard to know who benefits from risk reduction. We know some behaviors are linked to a decreased risk of breast cancer, but we don’t know how much any one person benefits.
For example, women who exercise regularly are less likely to get breast cancer than women who don’t exercise. However, this doesn’t mean if a woman exercises, she won’t get breast cancer. Some women who exercise regularly will get breast cancer and many women who don’t exercise will never get breast cancer.
A healthy lifestyle
Some healthy lifestyle choices (including maintaining a healthy weight and exercising) are related to a reduced risk of breast cancer.
Making healthy choices may also be related to a lower risk of other types of cancer and many other chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Learn more about healthy behaviors and breast cancer risk.