When it comes to breast cancer, it's critical to understand your health risks and take care of yourself. Here are four important steps all new moms should consider.
Mom in pink shirt holding baby
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Many new moms are too busy to think about their own health, between running on little-to-no sleep and worrying about their around-the-clock childcare schedule. It's critical, however, to take care of yourself and understand your health risks, especially since women are at an increased risk for developing breast cancer for up to five years (or longer) after giving birth, which is known as pregnancy-associated breast cancer.

Why? Because the hormones that prepare the breast to lactate can also fuel a cancer cell. Although pregnancy-associated breast cancer is rare, and less than 5% of breast cancer cases are found in women younger than 40 each year, all new moms have a short-term increase in the risk of breast cancer after childbirth. According to the National Cancer Institute, women who have children in their 30s or later have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer than those who have never given birth or women of younger ages.

All women should know how their breasts normally look and feel, and report any changes to their ob-gyn or primary care doctor right away.

Here are four important steps all new moms should consider:

  1. New moms should breastfeed immediately after giving birth, if they are able to. Breastfeeding may help lower breast cancer risk. Experts recommend nursing a newborn within an hour of giving birth, if possible, and not supplementing with formula while in the hospital. Doctors recommend new mothers should breastfeed for at least six months.
  2. Get some exercise and maintain a healthy weight. Returning to a health weight after giving birth can be a challenge, however exercise has clearly shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer.  Brisk walking for one hour a day can reduce your risk by more than 15%. The American Cancer Society recommends you engage in at least 45 minutes of physical activity at least 5 days a week.
  3. Avoid alcohol or reduce the amount of drinking. Drinking alcohol has been clearly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. The risk increases based on the amount of alcohol consumed. Experts recommend avoiding alcohol or limiting to one drink a day.
  4. Seek access to early detection programs and screening. Women at the age of 40 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year. At 45, all women should have annual mammograms. The American Cancer Society recommends these tips to make your mammogram as comfortable as possible: schedule your mammogram for when your breasts are not tender or swollen, and try to avoid the week just before your period.

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, follow up immediately with your doctor to ensure timely and higher quality cancer care. The organization Living Beyond Breast Cancer has excellent educational guides and information for any women or man newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

Marc Hurlbert, Ph.D., is chief mission officer of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. He shares important research updates all women and men should be aware of related to breast cancer risk and risk-reduction strategies.