Chances are you’ve heard the frightening statistic of “1 in 7”—that one in seven women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime.
Some risk factors, like family history, can’t be changed but others can.
At different stages in life, there are different things we can do to reduce the risks.
in your 20s
Breast cancer affects one in 11 Australian women. It is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer, and the most common cause of death from cancer in Australian women. However, your chance of developing it in your 20s is relatively low—less than 0.5 per cent of women get breast cancer before the age of 39.
Here’s how you can help keep your risk low.
check your family history The biggest risk for breast cancer has to do with your genes. If you have certain genetic mutations, called BRCA1 or BRCA2, you’re at much higher risk of developing the disease. “Somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent of those women will have breast-cancer by the age of 40 and half will have it by the time they’re 50,” says breast cancer specialist Suzanne Mahon, a clinical professor of haematology/ oncology. “Over a lifetime, it’s about a 95 per cent risk.” A blood test can tell you whether you carry one of the mutations.
There are also significant emotional and psychological consequences of testing to consider, as well as the risk of discrimination by insurance companies if you do have the genetic abnormality.
In any case, you should definitely examine your family history. “Women really need to inquire about anyone with breast cancer, especially before the age of 50,” says Mahon. If your family history is significant, talk to someone with an expertise in genetics to help determine your individual risk.
have a baby—if you want to! If you have a child before the age of 30, your risk of breast cancer is somewhat lower.
Your breasts complete their development after a first pregnancy, which makes them less sensitive to cancercausing substances, says Mahon. Obviously, this is only a benefit to early motherhood and shouldn’t be the reason you have a child.
eat fruit and vegetables Researchers are studying the effects of diet on breast cancer risk. According to the National Cancer Institute in the United States, it isn’t yet proven that a low-fat diet or a diet rich in fruit and vegetables will prevent breast cancer but a diet rich in beta-carotene may decrease risk.
Eat a diet that includes foods high in beta-carotene such as broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, squash, peaches, apricots and rockmelon.
check your breasts Your doctor will perform a breast exam at your annual checkup but you should do regular monthly breast exams as well. Circle the date on the calendar and examine your breasts at the same time every month—one week after your period starts. That’s when you’ll have the lowest level of hormones that produces nodularity—or lumpiness—making your breasts easier to examine.
in your 30s
Continue to check your breasts every month and if you notice anything unusual, see your doctor immediately.
Maintain your healthy diet and:
watch your alcohol intake Alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer. “Women who consistently have one or two drinks every day have an elevated risk, primarily because it enhances estrogen metabolism,” says Mahon.
get moving! Women who are sedentary have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer, as do overweight women—theoretically because they have more fat cells, which means they have more estrogen receptors, says Mahon. Maintain a healthy weight and try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day to reduce your risk of breast cancer and other diseases.
consider switching birth control While higher-dose oral contraceptives of the past were associated with a slightly increased risk of breast cancer, today’s pills contain a lower dose of hormones. The available data, however, suggests a slightly increased risk, so consider whether the benefits of the pill outweigh the risk of taking it. You may want to choose a different form of birth control.
in your 40s
In your 40s, your risk of developing breast cancer increases. “Getting older is a risk factor you can’t change—it’s somewhat related to the number of total ovulatory cycles a woman has over a lifetime,” says Mahon. Your risk is a bit higher if your first menstrual period is before the age of 12 and if you have a relatively late menopause.
get a baseline mammogram annually At 40, you should schedule your first mammogram (called a baseline) and have one every year thereafter. If you know you have a high heredity risk or known mutation, though, you may start with a baseline as early as age 25.
stay active Keep up your healthy eating habits and maintain a regular exercise program as well. “Exercise to maintain your weight and to decrease the number of fat cells you have,” recommends Mahon.
Strength-building exercise, like lifting weights, helps you maintain muscle tone and increases the number of calories your body burns even at rest, and aerobic exercise burns calories while improving your cardiovascular fitness as well.
in your 50s and beyond
You’re most likely to develop breast cancer after the age of 50—according to the US Centers for Disease Control, 75 per cent of breast cancer cases occur after 50 years of age. Your risk gradually increases as you age, meaning if you live to be 90, you have a one-in-seven chance of developing the disease.
The same advice applies to older women as to younger but annual mammograms are even more important, because of the heightened risk. In addition to the above advice:
question hormone replacement Just as taking the pill may cause a small increase in the risk of breast cancer, postmenopausal women may increase their risk by having hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Women should consider the risks and benefits of HRT before going on the regime. If you have a significant family history of breast cancer or have had breast abnormalities before, HRT may not be worth the risk.
the bottom line?
“Every woman is at risk and some women are at higher risk than others.
You can have every risk factor and never get it or you can have none and get it,” says Mahon.
“Be aware of the risk and change where you can. And if you really think you have a problem … take responsibility and seek out a healthcare provider to help you.”