Although there is a widely held perception that breast cancer is an issue only for the western world, the reality is that it is the most common cancer in women both in the developed and the developing world. Indeed, the incidence of breast cancer is rising in the developing world because of increased life expectancy, urbanisation, and the adoption of western lifestyles.

As early diagnosis and treatments for breast cancer improve, women are not only surviving the disease – they are surviving for longer. Investigating whether lifestyle factors could play a role in improving survival rates is also becoming increasingly important. Understanding the science behind surviving breast cancer, however, is a relatively new area of research, but there is growing evidence that lifestyle choices may help to reduce the risk of having another diagnosis of breast cancer or dying from the disease.

CUP breast cancer survivors reportThe total number of women in the 85 studies reviewed was 164,416; and the total number of deaths in the studies came to 42,572.

Incidence and survival rates

Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers) among women in 140 of 180 countries worldwide. Between 2008 and 2012 breast cancer incidence increased by 20 per cent, while mortality has increased by 14 per cent. In the US, it is estimated that there are currently 3.1 million breast cancer survivors.

Overall survival rates for breast cancer vary world wide, but in general survival rates have improved. This is because the majority of breast cancer cases are diagnosed at an earlier and localised stage, and improved surgery and adjuvant tailored treatment regimes are available. In many countries the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with Stage I/II (only spread to tissues or nodes under the arm) breast cancer is 80–90 per cent. If it has reached the distant stage (spread to distant lymph nodes or organs) the survival rate falls to 24 per cent. The five-year prevalence of breast cancer per 100,000 is 665 in Western Europe, 745 in North America, and 170 in Eastern Asia.

Lifestyle factors and the survival after breast cancer

In this report from our Continuous Update Project (CUP) – the world’s largest source of scientific research on cancer prevention and survivorship through diet, nutrition and physical activity – we analyse global research on how certain lifestyle factors affect how likely it is that a person will survive after developing breast cancer. This webpage forms part of WCRF/AICR’s 2018 Third Expert Report Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective.

Findings on breast cancer survivors

There is some evidence of links between better survival after breast cancer and:

Breast cancer survivors evidence matrix (by outcome)

See more graphics in our toolkit.

How the research was conducted

The report specifically focuses on:

  • female breast cancer survivors who are living with a diagnosis of cancer, including those who have recovered from the disease;
  • the link between diet, weight, physical activity and the likelihood of female breast cancer survivors dying from breast cancer, second primary breast cancer (i.e. a new cancer occurring in the same breast after treatment or in the opposite breast), or any other disease.

Breast cancer survivors are defined in the report as women who have received a diagnosis of breast cancer – from the point of diagnosis, through and after treatment.

For the report, the global scientific research on diet, nutrition, physical activity and female breast cancer survivors was gathered and analysed, and then independently assessed by a panel of leading international scientists in order to draw conclusions about surviving breast cancer and reducing the risk of a second primary breast cancer.

Published findings in peer-reviewed journals

Selected findings from this report have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Details of the papers and links to the abstract in PubMed are below:

Body mass index and survival in women with breast cancer--systematic literature review and meta-analysis of 82 follow-up studies. Chan DS, Vieira AR, Aune D, Bandera EV, Greenwood DC, McTiernan A, Navarro Rosenblatt D, Thune I, Vieira R, Norat T. Ann Oncol 2014; 25(10): 1901-1914. Abstract.

This webpage is a summary.

For much more, download the full chapter.