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The truth about mammograms and breast cancer prevention

According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, you should have a mammogram every other year if you are between 50 and 74 years old. Other groups, such as the National Cancer Institute, take a more cautious approach and recommend mammograms every one to two years starting at 40. What are we women to do?

Mammogram being examined by radiologist

Mammograms are not infallible

Part of the controversy stems from various shortcomings with mammograms, including ineffective computer software that can miss one-third of all breast cancers and false positives — not to mention the anxiety involved with biopsies and other subsequent testing.

Numerous factors contribute to when and how often you get mammograms. If you or someone in your family has a history of breast cancer, for instance, you might have them more often. Likewise, if you find a suspicious lump or you have swelling or discharge, yearly mammograms could be a smart investment.

Studies yield mixed results about a mammogram’s efficacy. A Swedish study in the journal PLoS One showed mammograms reduced breast-cancer mortality 16 percent in women ages 40 to 69. On the other hand, a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, which looked at 1.6 million mammograms over eight years, concluded the technology’s drawbacks (such as the aforementioned false positives) could outweigh benefits.

Dangers of mammograms

Radiation exposure proves another drawback. A study in the International Journal of Radiation Biology, for example, assessed radiation-induced DNA damage in epithelial breast cells. Researchers found radiation created more damage to these cells in high-risk women (women with a breast-cancer familial history), and dose repetition only increased this effect.

Breast cancer screening is a $2.1 billion-dollar-a-year business centered on mammography, MRI, ultrasound and other profitable technology. In other words, your health might not be the only concern at institutes that strongly encourage regular mammograms.

Mammograms do not prevent breast cancer

Also remember that mammograms diagnose but don’t prevent, breast cancer. You can’t change your genes, but you can change your lifestyle and eating habits.

The best ways to prevent breast cancer

Exercise: A study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, for instance, showed women who exercised four or more hours each week had a lower incidence of breast cancer than inactive women.

Lose weight: An ideal weight and blood sugar levels also reduce your risk. Toss the sugar, which feeds cancer cells.

Eat your colors: Perhaps the best prevention against breast cancer is a colorful array of fruits and vegetables, along with lean protein and plenty of fiber. A meta-analysis in the European Journal of Cancer concluded that vegetables, and to a lesser extent fruit, could reduce breast cancer risks. Aim for a variety of color.

Get curried: Turmeric, the bright orange spice often found in Indian food, has the anti-cancer compound curcumin, which you can also get in therapeutic amounts as a supplement. A study in the journal Anticancer Research concluded that curcumin could induce apoptosis (cell death) in breast cancer cells.

Supplement with vitamin D: A study in The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology showed that women who take 2,000 IU a day of vitamin D reduced their breast cancer risk by an impressive 50 percent.

Up your vitamin A: Organic egg yolks and beef liver offer rich amounts of this cancer-fighting, immune-system-boosting vitamin. You can also get carotenoids, which provide vitamin A activity, in fruits and vegetables. For instance, a study in Epidemiology concluded that beta carotene, the orange pigment in sweet potatoes, could lower breast cancer.

Fill up on fish: Omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies frequently contribute to cancer. Wild salmon and other wild-caught fish provide these beneficial fatty acids. You can also get them in fish oil. A study in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications showed that fish oil could prevent breast cancer metastasis to bone.

More breast cancer prevention tips

3 Best exercises to beat breast cancer
Fight breast cancer with these foods
New drug for breast cancer: Fish oil?

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