Protecting Yourself From Breast Cancer
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Protecting Yourself From Breast Cancer

What to do in your 30s, 40s, and 50s to prevent breast cancer.

What You Need to Know

Breast cancer statistics are staggering: It is the most common cancer to strike North American women. It is a leading cause of cancer death, second only to lung cancer. And simply being a woman and getting older puts you at risk for the disease. But you're not powerless in the fight against it: Being aware of risk factors and staying on top of screening can save your life, according to the experts. Here's what you need to know.

In Your 30s

What to Look Out For:

Family matters: "Be aware of the facts about breast cancer and your own family history," says Elizabeth Woolfe, director of information services for the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations, in New York City. Breast cancer risk is higher among women whose close blood relatives have this disease. In fact, having a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer nearly doubles a woman's risk.

Pregnancy timing: Women who have their first child after age 30 (or have no children at all) have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.

What to Do:

Early screening: If you are at higher risk for breast cancer (for example, it runs in your family), discuss the possible advantages of early screening with your health-care practitioner.

Limit alcohol intake: With each glass of alcohol you consume, your risk rises.

Exercise: "Power walking for 20 minutes a day is a great way to reduce your risk," says Lillie Shockney, RN, director of education and research for the Johns Hopkins Breast Center in Baltimore. Recent studies show getting in good workouts when you're younger might provide life-long protection against breast cancer and that even moderate physical activity as an adult can lower risk for the disease.

Clinical breast exam (CBE): Get this as part of your regular checkup, about every three years.

In Your 40s

What to Look Out For:

With age comes risk: As you get older, your chances of developing breast cancer increase. About 18 percent of breast cancer diagnoses are among women in their 40s.

What to Do:

Get a mammogram: Mammography is the best available method for detecting breast cancer in its earliest, most treatable stage -- an average of 1 to 3 years before a woman can feel a lump. Women 40 or older should have an annual mammogram. "Those three minutes can save your life," says Woolfe.

CBE: In your 40s, "You should have this exam annually, or more frequently if you have increased risk factors," says Esther Rhei, MD, a surgical oncologist at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston.

Fill up on fruits and veggies: Women whose diets are rich in fruits and vegetables -- especially dark green and orange ones -- have a lower risk of getting breast cancer. Women of all ages should follow this rule.

In Your 50s

What to Look Out For:

Be aware: "Cancer risk increases markedly in this decade, so women should be particularly diligent about screening," says Dr. Rhei. In fact, about 77 percent of women with breast cancer are older than 50 when they are diagnosed.

HRT: Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy after menopause may increase your risk of breast cancer. Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of this treatment with your physician.

Trim the fat: Being overweight is associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer, especially for women after menopause.

What to Do:

Stay slim: Try to keep the weight off ? especially as you get older. Risk appears to be increased for women who gained weight as an adult.

Stay informed: "Keep yourself abreast of what is the best information available related to breast cancer research," says Shockney. "The more we empower ourselves with information, the more at ease we are for watching and taking care of it."

Be an ambassador: "Make sure that friends and family members are also getting their annual mammograms," says Woolfe. Reaching out to others who aren?t as proactive about their health may save lives.

Originally written for, October 2003.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your loved one's condition.