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It’s not easy fitting in self-care these days, but there are some things that are non-negotiable. At the top of the list should be keeping an eye on your own health, including your breast health. “The two driving factors for breast cancer risk are being a woman and getting older,” says Shicha Kumar, MD, assistant professor of surgery, attending breast surgeon and breast surgical oncologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. “There are things you can’t control, such as a family history, but there also are some lifestyle factors that may help reduce risk.”

That doesn’t mean you’re in the clear if you have no family history of breast cancer. “While family history is a factor, many women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history,” says Catherine Loveland-Jones, MD, MS, FACS, assistant professor of surgery, breast surgery division head and co-director of Janet Knowles Breast Cancer Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. “That’s why women of average risk should start getting mammograms at age 40 and annually after that.” Here’s what else you need to know about your breast health:

GET REGULAR SCREENINGS

Although there is some variability in what various medical organizations recommend, many breast health practitioners still encourage annual mammograms. “There’s some wiggle room on official recommendations, but for those of us in the field, we suggest annual screenings, starting at age 40,” says Kumar. 

 “Early detection does make a difference.” 

However, certain women may need to start screening earlier. For example, if a first-degree family member, such as your mom or sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, you should start screening 10 years earlier than their age of diagnosis (so, if she was diagnosed at age 45, you should start screening at age 35), says Loveland-Jones.

For many years, clinical breast exams by your provider were also recommended. According to the American Cancer Society, research hasn’t shown a clear benefit of regular physical breast exams by your provider to help find breast cancer early, as long as you’re also getting your screening mammograms. If women find a lump, it’s usually during normal activities like bathing or dressing. You know your body best; it’s always smart to be familiar with how your breasts and nipples normally look and feel and report any changes, no matter how subtle, to your doctor ASAP. 

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ASK YOUR DOCTOR ABOUT PERSONAL RISK

Many factors can impact your risk, including your history of smoking, obesity, how much alcohol you drink and hormonal history, such as when your periods started and if applicable, when they stopped, how many kids you have, how old you were when you had your first child and the use of HRT, says Kumar. Breast health clinics can do a more detailed personal risk assessment, so discuss with your doctor if you should see a breast health specialist for further evaluation. 

For women of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, breast cancer risk is slightly higher, likely due to inherited gene mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, says Kumar. Talk to your doctor about whether or not you would benefit from genetic testing to identify gene mutations. In addition, women with genetic mutations will need more frequent and additional types of screening such as MRIs. Of course, women with a personal history of breast cancer also should be screened more frequently. 

DISCUSS ADDITIONAL SCREENINGS FOR DENSE BREASTS

You may have noticed that line on your mammogram report that states whether or not you have dense breasts, indicating how much fatty tissue your breasts contain. About half the population does have dense breasts, which means a slightly increased risk for breast cancer. “For those women, we recommend additional screenings such as an ultrasound at the time of mammography,” says Loveland-Jones. Though no test is foolproof, studies have shown that mammograms along with ultrasound may find slightly more cancers in women with dense breasts.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

Granted, that’s easier said than done with everything else on your plate. But while there’s no magic potion, certain lifestyle behaviors you can control may reduce your risk. “Things that make your heart and lungs healthy are good for your breasts, too,” says Kumar. That includes maintaining a healthy weight, getting moderate exercise of 150 minutes per week, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and avoiding or limiting alcohol to two drinks per week, according to Kumar. 

The good news is that both surgeries and medical treatments have come a long way in treating breast cancer in the last 10 years. “Many new drugs such as immunotherapy have made a huge difference in longevity,” says Kumar. “We’ve also learned to develop treatment tailored to each patient. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.”

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