Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer among women in the US. The National Cancer Institute estimates that nearly 200,000 new cases will be diagnosed and 40,000 women will die of the disease in 2009. Every woman is at risk of developing breast cancer, and there is no way to prevent it; however, you can reduce your risk.
1. Be aware of your risk factors
Although there is no way to prevent breast cancer, experts say you can reduce your risk. Of course, you can’t change some risk factors, such as age, family history, genetics, and prior history of breast cancer — but risk factors related to lifestyle, such as diet, exercise and alcohol consumption are within your control. Your best defense against this life-threatening disease is to be aware of your risk factors and take steps to change those you can, along with with regular breast cancer screenings. (Breast cancer risk assessment tool)
2. Know your family history
According to oncologist Dr Shubham Pant, assistant professor of medicine and director of clinical trials at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, women with a family history of breast cancer are at an increased risk of developing the disease. If breast cancer does run in your family, be sure to disclose this information to your doctor so she can determine if you need a more rigorous screening schedule.
3. Consider genetic counseling
“Genetic counseling is recommended for women with a family history of breast cancer,” says Dr Ruth Oratz, a clinical associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine who specializes in treating families with a genetic susceptibility to breast cancer. Women who inherit a genetic mutation of the BRAC1 or BRAC2 genes are at an increased risk of developing both breast cancer and ovarian cancer. The BRAC genes belong to a class known as tumor suppressors; however, when these genes are mutated, they are strongly associated with hereditary breast cancer and other cancers. If you have a family history of breast cancer, discuss genetic counseling with your doctor.
4. Understand the hormonal factors
Dr Pant says cites a number of hormonal factors that can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer: “Early menarche (menstruation) and late menopause, women who have never completed a pregnancy beyond 20 weeks, and hormone replacement therapy seem to confer an increased risk.” He adds, “Women with childbirth at a younger age have a lower risk, and breastfeeding seems to confer a protective [factor].” Studies suggest that women are at a higher risk of breast cancer if they are exposed to higher or prolonged levels of estrogen, as is the case for women who have a greater total number of menstrual periods.
5. Limit alcohol consumption
“Women who drink every day put themselves at a higher risk of getting breast cancer,” says Dr Oratz, who recently established the Women’s Oncology and Wellness Practice in New York City. “We really need to encourage young people to drink less; there is no safe amount of alcohol when it comes to breast cancer.”
6. Lose weight
Being overweight or obese is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. Dr Oratz recommends, “Exercise and follow a low-fat diet. Both are good for health and can help women who are overweight or obese.”
7. Know your breasts
Many changes occur in a woman’s breasts throughout her lifetime, from monthly menstrual cycles, pregnancy, breastfeeding and age. Dr Oratz recommends becoming familiar with what is normal for you. “During or after pregnancy, women should be aware of the normal changes that occur so they are more aware of abnormal changes.” Pain, swelling and color changes can occur during and after pregnancy, but asymmetric changes, such as one breast growing larger than the other, should be checked out right away. (How to perform a breast self exam)
8. Stay informed
Breast cancer is an area of fast-growing research, with continuing advancements in diagnosis and treatment as well as important discoveries regarding risk factors. The more you know, the better you can protect yourself from getting breast cancer, and the better armed you will be if you happen to get a breast cancer diagnosis.
Keep the following websites bookmarked for breast cancer information:
- BreastCancer.org (www.BreastCancer.org)
- Dr Susan B Love Research Foundation (http://www.dslrf.org/)
- Susan G Komen for the Cure (http://ww5.komen.org/)
- National Cancer Institute (www.Cancer.gov)
- American Cancer Society (www.Cancer.org)
9. Prioritize breast cancer screenings
Early diagnosis is crucial in successfully treating breast cancer. Dr Pant says, “The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms starting at age 40 and continuing for as long as a woman is in good health.” If you have a family or personal history of breast cancer or are considered high risk for other reasons, however, you should start screening earlier. Dr Oratz adds, “For some women, a sonogram or MRI may be recommended. Younger women have denser breast tissue, which can often be harder to screen with a mammogram.”
10. Be persistent
“Because breast cancer incidence does increase with age and isn’t common in young women, doctors may dismiss a young woman’s concern,” warns Dr Oratz. “Young women need to be persistent if they feel something is wrong.” Even if you don’t feel a lump but are experiencing unexplained pain, nipple discharge or just don’t feel right, insist on getting it checked out further (or find a new doctor who listens to your concerns).