Women are reluctant to make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of breast cancer – according to a survey of 6,000 women published this week.
The survey, designed by Cancer Research UK, showed that a worryingly small proportion of women take action to minimise their risk of breast cancer – despite knowing about research highlighting lifestyle links to the disease.
Questions about breast cancer were prefaced with information showing links between alcohol, obesity, HRT and breast cancer risk. Research has also previously indicated an added breast cancer risk among women who delay having children and those who do not breast feed.
The questionnaire was intended to assess awareness of breast cancer risk and a woman’s willingness to change her behaviour to reduce the chances of getting the disease.
Around 30 per cent of women had heard of the link between alcohol and breast cancer before completing the survey but only one in five of these women had cut down their consumption to reduce their risk of the disease.
The survey also found that women who drank more than 21 units a week were less likely to believe alcohol was a risk factor.
Almost 40 per cent said they had previously known about the link between obesity and breast cancer risk but less than a fifth of these said they had tried to reach or maintain a healthy weight to cut their risk of the disease.
Awareness of obesity as a risk factor was higher among women with educational qualifications, non-smokers and those classified as underweight.
Links between breast cancer risk and prolonged use of HRT were more widely known and had resulted in considerable behavioural change. More than 71 per cent said they had been aware of the link before completing the survey. And a little over 40 per cent of these had decided to reduce, stop or avoid the treatment to lessen breast cancer risk.
Women currently using HRT were less likely to believe HRT was a risk factor.
Forty-five per cent of women questioned did not believe the age of child-bearing could be a risk factor in breast cancer. And while nearly 60 per cent of women had previously been aware that breast feeding children for longer could reduce their risk of breast cancer, only 13 per cent have followed that pattern of behaviour specifically to reduce that risk.
Professor Jane Wardle, head of Cancer Research UK’s Health Behaviour Unit, says: “The value of this kind of survey is that it indicates the areas where our work is getting a worthwhile message across to women and the areas where we might do better.
“It is important that women have access to information that will help them make an informed choice about their lifestyle and they need to have this information in a form they can understand.
“If scientific research can be presented in such a way as to show how unrestrained consumption of alcohol and high calorie food could increase their breast cancer risk – then they are in a position to take steps to reduce that risk if they want to.”
Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Cancer Information at Cancer Research UK, says: “Scientific information should be available to women to help them make decisions about their lifestyle in relation to their health. In some areas, particularly HRT, it is important that women discuss any changes they might feel they want to make with their doctor.”
The survey was conducted before new research, published last month in the Lancet, showed that some kinds of HRT have a greater effect on a woman’s risk of breast cancer than others.
The Million Women Study funded by Cancer Research UK, the NHS Breast Screening Programme and the Medical Research Council, confirmed that current and recent use of HRT increases a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer and that the risk goes up with longer duration of use. Worldwide publicity generated from this research is likely to have affected HRT users’ attitudes to the risk of breast cancer.
The survey was published in The Mail on Sunday’s YOU magazine whose readers made up the sample questioned. Data was weighted to adjust for differences to ensure the results were representative of the UK population as a whole.