These days, all over the world and in the United States in particular, breast cancer is one of the most common health risks for women. It's not something to be taken lightly - this disease is a killer, and more often than not it has long-term consequences even for those that survive it. So it's not strange that scientists have devoted a lot of time and effort to understand breast cancer, and all that research has turned out to be very productive; for one, we have been able to identify substantial risk factors for the disease such as aging, timing of menopause and first menstruation, specific genetic characteristics, and so on.
Now, the Institute of Medicine at Washington, D.C. has reviewed multiple scientific studies in order to produce a comprehensive report on the potential relationship between environmental factors and the risk of breast cancer.
The conclusions of the IOM report are not entirely definitive, or even satisfactory in some cases, partly because of the inherent difficulties in carrying out environmental studies - which require complex, long-term observations of large samples - and also because we don't completely understand the biology of breast cancer, nor of the human breast itself.
Therefore, while the report looks at a wide range of possible environmental risk factors, from smoking and alcohol consumption to radiation and a variety of chemicals found on everything from gasoline to hair dyes, the evidence so far is mostly inconclusive. In other words, many of the studied risk factors are more or less plausible - sometimes to a very convincing degree - but we just don't have enough scientific data to know for sure, one way or the other.
On the other hand, the report does give a few useful pointers on how to minimize your risk of developing breast cancer. The first step, not surprisingly, is to have a healthy lifestyle - regular physical activity, no smoking and limited alcohol consumption. You might also want to avoid unnecessary CT scans and other medical tests that involve ionizing radiation, and certain hormone therapies. And if you're one of those people who subscribe to the "Better safe than sorry" motto, you probably want to be careful when choosing cosmetics and dietary supplements, pumping gas, or using plastic containers. Many of these contain chemicals that have been linked more or less tentatively to breast cancer.
Following all of these guidelines does not automatically free you of the breast-cancer menace, but it's definitely a step in the right direction toward reducing the risk. And in any case, the advice given in the IOM report is useful not just to prevent cancer, but to improve health in general. Moderation, an active life, and conscious choices when it comes to the things you use and the substances you're exposed to, can go a long way toward making you stronger and better able to deal with illness.
So, go for it!