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Here’s the hard truth: The biggest risk for breast cancer is simply being a woman. But that shouldn’t stop you from taking charge. “[The] first step is to take control [of] your own body,” says Linda R. Aboody, MD, director of radiology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Basking Ridge. “Don’t be passive and leave it to your doctor. Have a conversation about your personal risk factors. We’re in an age of individualized medicine which can be more tailored to your profile.” Besides screenings (ask your doctor what’s right for you), here’s what else you can do to reduce your risk.
Do a reality check.
Even if you have no family history, you’re not in the clear and still need regular mammograms. “Average-risk women still make up the majority of breast cancer patients,” says Aboody. “Avoid the mentality that you’re safe because ‘I don’t have it in my family’ or ‘I do all the right things.’” If you do have close family members who’ve had breast cancer or a history of other types of cancers on either side of the family, such as ovarian, consider genetic counseling.
Women who have one alcoholic drink a day have a small increased risk of breast cancer, while women who have two to five drinks a day have about 1 1/2 times more risk than non-drinkers. “There’s no safe amount of alcohol when it comes to breast cancer,” says Arnold Baskies, MD, chairman for the national board of the American Cancer Society and a surgical oncologist at Virtua Health Systems in southern New Jersey. “The more you drink, the greater the risk.”
Watch your weight.
Yeah, we know it’s tough, but a 20-pound weight loss decreases the risk of breast cancer by 60 percent in post-menopausal women, says Baskies. Before menopause, ovaries make most of your estrogen, while afterwards, the majority comes from fat tissue. More fat can raise estrogen levels, which increases your chances of breast cancer.
One study showed just 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours of brisk walking a week can reduce your risk by 18 percent. Aim for anything that makes you breathe hard and raises your heart rate.
Learn how dense your breasts are.
It’s actually common to have dense breasts, which means you have more fibrous and glandular tissue than fatty, says Aboody. The issue is that dense breasts can make it more difficult for radiologists to see cancer. Plus, having dense breasts slightly increases your risk of breast cancer, though it’s not yet known why. If you have dense breasts, you may need a digital mammography and MRI ultrasound as part of your screening.
Arricca Elin SanSone is a New York-based health and lifestyle writer.