October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Learn what you can do to protect yourself against the most common cancer in young women.

By Peg Rosen
September 11, 2020
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Credit: Illustration by Bijou Karman

Unlike most organs, breasts continue to mature well into adulthood, says Marisa Weiss, M.D., chief medical officer and founder of Breastcancer.org, and are especially sensitive to environmental factors. That means they require extra attention. Here’s how to keep them healthy.

Ditch Drinking—or Cut Back

Compared with teetotalers, women who have just three drinks weekly have a 15 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer (plus another 10 percent for every additional drink per week), according to Breastcancer.org. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises sticking to up to one drink per day.

Get Moving

Exercise may boost our immune system enough to slow the growth of cancer cells. Just 150 minutes of moderate exercise (or 75 minutes of vigorous) weekly can help, according to the American Cancer Society.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Being 10 percent overweight can increase your breast-cancer risk after menopause, since fat cells generate estrogen that can make certain cancers grow. “I advise younger patients not to put on weight now, since it will be that much harder to lose it after menopause,” says Deanna Attai, M.D., assistant professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Know Your Body

Monthly breast self-exams are no longer recommended by the American Cancer Society. (False positives triggered too many unnecessary tests and biopsies.) But we should know what’s normal for our breasts—how they feel, their size, and which lumps come and go throughout the month. If you notice a change, be it a lump, discharge from a nipple, dimpled skin, pain, or swelling, don’t panic, but do see a doctor.

Know Your Risk

Breast cancer is uncommon in young women at average risk. “But many don’t know what their risk is,” says Dr. Attai. Here’s what you should consider:

Family histories aren’t always obvious.

A pattern of cancer can be less noticeable in a smaller family, since there are fewer cases to catch your attention. “People also don’t tend to talk about what relatives died of and may not spontaneously share details about their health,” says Jean Sachs, CEO of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. So it behooves you to do some sleuthing. “Ask relatives about cancer in the family and what kind, at what age people were diagnosed, and what happened to them,” says Dr. Weiss. Show your findings to your doctor. If they see red flags, they may recommend that you see a genetic counselor, who can help you determine if genetic testing is an appropriate next step.

Breast cancer discriminates.

“Black women are 40 percent more likely than white women to die from breast cancer,” says Karen E. Jackson, founder and CEO of Sisters Network, Inc., an organization for Black breast cancer survivors. Black women are also more likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form that doesn’t respond to hormone-based therapies and is more likely to recur, says Dr. Weiss. In the U.S., breast-cancer risk is also higher among Jewish women of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) heritage, who are more likely to carry the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutation, giving them up to a 75 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and up to a 50 percent lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer, according to Dr. Weiss. A single blood or saliva panel can screen women for more than a dozen breast cancer-linked genes.

Childbirth after 30 can up your risk.

Yes, childbearing (and breastfeeding) lowers our lifetime risk of breast cancer, but what many of us don’t know is that a recent pregnancy can slightly increase short-term risk, particularly in women over 30, says Ann Partridge, M.D., M.P.H., cofounder and director of the Young and Strong Program for Young Women With Breast Cancer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in Boston. Why is this? “The surge of hormones that comes with pregnancy may activate abnormal breast cells,” says Dr. Weiss. However, keep in mind that this increase in risk is minimal—it shouldn’t dictate when, or if, women should have children.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's October 2020 issue as “Breast Cancer in the Pandemic - How to Care for Your Breasts.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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