Breast Cancer Update

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Learn about the risk factors and what you can do to minimize them.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer at some point in their life. It is the second most common cause of cancer death in women. But you have more control than you may think. By knowing your risk and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, you can increase the likelihood that you'll remain breast cancer-free.

Risk Factors

You may be at high risk for breast cancer if:

  • Your mother, sister, or daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer
  • You have more than one relative who was diagnosed with breast cancer
  • A relative of yours had cancerous cells in both breasts
  • The BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 gene runs in your family

You may be at increased risk for breast cancer if:

  • You went through puberty before the age of 12
  • You did not have a full-term pregnancy before the age of 30
  • You are overweight

Testing

When breast cancer is caught early, the odds of survival are high -- 5-year survival rates are as high as 98 percent. So it's important for all women to do self-examinations on a monthly basis. It's even more important if you're in one of the elevated-risk groups above.

Here are some tips on monthly testing from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG):

  • Plan your exam for a few days after your period, or at the same time of the month if you do not have periods.
  • Always perform your self-exam in good lighting.
  • Stand or sit in front of a mirror. Placing your arms at your sides, look for dimpling, puckering, or redness of the breast skin, discharge from the nipples, or changes in breast size or shape. Look for the same signs with your hands pressed tightly on your hips and then with your arms raised high.
  • Using one hand, keep the fingers flat and together and gently feel your breast without pressing too hard. Examine both breasts using one of three methods:

    Circle: Starting at the top of your breast, move your fingers slowly around your breast in smaller and smaller circles until you have examined all of the breast tissue.
    Lines: Begin in the underarm area. Move your fingers down to the bottom of your breast, then back up closer to the nipple. Use this up-and-down pattern all the way across your breast.
    Wedge: Starting at the outside edge of your breast, slowly work your way in toward the nipple, doing one wedge-shaped section at a time. Examine the entire breast this way.

In addition to these self-examinations, women should begin having annual mammograms at age 40, although women in the high-risk groups may want to start as young as 30. Speak to your ob-gyn to determine when you should have your first mammogram.

Prevention

While you may not have control over some of your risk factors, you do have some control over your lifestyle. Living a healthy, active life can play an active role in reducing your risk of developing breast cancer. Here's what you can do:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Breast cancer cells, just like healthy breast cells, are triggered by estrogen. And the more excess weight you carry on your body, the higher your levels of estrogen.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption. Studies show that women who drink two or more alcoholic beverages a day are 20 percent more likely to develop breast cancer. ACOG recommends that women limit consumption to less than two alcoholic beverages a day.
  • Avoid hormone therapy. Some post-menopausal women opt to take estrogen (or estrogen and progesterone combination) supplements to replace the reduced hormone levels in their body. This has been liked to an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Eat healthy foods. Women who maintain a low-fat diet have been shown to have a lower rate of breast cancer occurrence. Load up on fruits and vegetables and avoid fatty foods -- especially fatty meats.

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