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5 Ways to Bust Your Breast Cancer Risk

Focused on Health - October 2011

prevent breast cancerby Adelina Espat

Breast cancer may be the most common cancer among women. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t do something to help prevent it.

Researchers have found certain risk factors that increase a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer. We can’t change some of these factors, like age or race. But we can try to control others, like weight gain and alcohol use.

And, taking responsibility for the things you can control may curb your chances of developing this disease.

Below, our in-house expert, Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center, shares five simple ways to cut your breast cancer risk and take charge of your breast health.

1. Maintain your ideal weight. 

Women who gain a lot of weight after age 21 have higher breast cancer risks than women who maintain a healthy weight throughout life.

This is especially true for women who gain weight after menopause. That’s because too much fat tissue after menopause raises a women’s estrogen levels. And, high amounts of estrogen increase the likelihood of breast cancer.

To keep your cancer risk low, avoid weight gain by eating the right foods and staying active. Want more incentive to exercise? Growing research shows that exercise actually helps reduce breast cancer risk directly.

prevent breast cancer2. Drink alcohol in moderation.

Having a glass of wine now and again is not bad for your health. But, drinking several glasses a day can up your breast cancer risks.

Play it safe by sticking to the recommended serving size. The National Cancer Institute recommends that women have no more than one drink per day and men have no more than two drinks per day.

A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

3. Talk to your doctor about hormone therapy.

Some women receive hormone therapy to cope with menopause symptoms. But, how safe is it?

Recent results from the Women’s Health Initiative showed that women who took combined hormone therapy (estrogen and progestin) had a bigger risk of breast cancer. Follow-up results suggested that it’s specifically the progestin in combined hormone therapy that increases a woman’s risk.

So, speak with your doctor before using hormone therapy. Make sure you understand all the benefits and harms before you start.

prevent breast cancer4. Follow recommended screening guidelines. 

Cancer screening exams, such as the mammogram, are medical tests done when you’re healthy, and you don’t have any signs of illness. They help find cancer at its earliest stage when the chances of successfully treating the disease are greatest.

MD Anderson recommends women get a clinical breast exam every 1-3 years beginning at age 20 to check for breast cancer. And, beginning at age 40, women should have a yearly clinical breast exam and mammogram. 

In-between doctor visits, practice breast self-awareness. This means you should simply be familiar with how your breasts look and feel. And, if you notice any changes during normal daily activities, like showering and dressing, notify your doctor. 

5. Get your breast cancer risk assessed.

Every woman has a unique set of breast cancer risks. Depending on your lifestyle as well as your personal and family health history, you may be more likely or less likely to develop the disease.

That’s why it’s important to discuss your personal risks with your doctor. If you at increased risk for breast cancer, your doctor can develop a prevention plan for you. This plan may include undergoing genetic testing, starting mammogram screening at an earlier age or taking medicine to reduce your breast cancer risks.

To better understand your breast cancer risk factors, take a few minutes to complete our online questionnaire, Cancer Risk Check. Share your personalized results with your doctor.

“Making these healthy changes does not mean you won’t get breast cancer, but they may lower your chances,” Bevers says. “And, that could mean you get to enjoy a longer, healthier life.”

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center