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Lower Your Risk with Early Breast Cancer Detection

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How to lower your breast cancer risk by changing your habits.

10 Ways to Fight Breast Cancer

Who are the best breast experts? It may not be your doctor -- or even the top researchers in the field. The truth is that you are the best first line of defense when it comes to reducing your risk of developing breast cancer -- at any age -- by making smart choices and becoming your own best health advocate. That's right, you: Whether you start small, by swapping your usual mojito for a seltzer next happy hour, or big, by writing to your Congressperson and asking her to increase funding for screening programs, you'll know you're doing all you can to help keep your breasts healthy. Here's how to take action.

1. Educate yourself.

Breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women after nonmelanoma skin cancer, striking one in eight in the U.S. Most have no risk factors besides being female and getting older: Ninety-five percent of new cases from 1998 to 2002 were in women over 40. For reasons that are still unclear, Caucasian women are most likely to develop the cancer, but African-American women are more likely to die from it. Contrary to popular belief, having large breasts, wearing underwire bras, or using antiperspirant, hair coloring, or hair-relaxing products don't seem to affect your risk; doctors are striving to better determine what genetic and lifestyle factors do. To keep up with new developments, visit the Web sites of Susan G. Komen for the Cure (www.komen.org), the National Breast Cancer Coalition (www.stopbreastcancer.org) and the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org).

2. Learn your family's medical history.

Some 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are inherited, often through abnormalities in the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2, which are strongly linked to ovarian cancer as well. If you have a first-degree relative -- mother, sister, or daughter -- with either of these diseases, you're at a high risk for breast cancer. Having a father or brother with breast cancer (some 2,000 men will be diagnosed in 2007) or two or more first- or second-degree relatives (grandmothers, aunts or cousins) with breast cancer also ups your chance of developing the disease. Generally, the younger the age at which a family member was diagnosed, the higher your chances of getting it, says Debu Tripathy, MD, director of the Komen/UT Southwestern Medical Center Breast Cancer Research Program in Dallas. Since other genetic conditions (such as Li-Fraumeni and Cowden syndromes) are also linked to a higher risk, "the safe thing is to give your doctor as complete a medical and family history as you can," says Dr. Tripathy. "He or she can refer you to a genetic counselor to best assess your risk."

3. Master the self-exam.

By age 20, you should be doing a monthly breast self-exam to feel for lumps and other irregularities (for instructions, go to www.fitnessmagazine.com/exam). While no strong evidence exists that women who do self-exams are less likely to die from breast cancer than those who don't, many experts believe they do help. "Self-exams at an early age help a woman know what her breasts feel like, making her more likely to notice a change earlier than someone who doesn't," explains Cheryl Perkins, MD, Susan G. Komen for the Cure's senior clinical advisor.

4. Know when to see your doctor.

Even a subtle change in your breasts -- including breast pain and, particularly, any skin change such as dimpling or puckering -- calls for a visit to your physician, says Eric Winer, MD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. And because your doctor might detect a lump you've missed, experts advise having him or her examine your breasts once every three years in your 20s and 30s and once a year after age 40 -- which is also when you should start getting an annual mammogram. The test can lead to unnecessary biopsies, but most doctors believe that mammograms are key for diagnosing tumors that aren't detectable in an exam. If you're at high risk, you might also want an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) every year, starting at age 30. In recent studies, MRIs proved better than mammograms at finding invasive tumors in women with a genetic predisposition to breast cancer.

5. Cut back on cocktails.

The more a woman drinks, the greater her risk for developing breast cancer. Yet studies show that moderate alcohol use can help protect against heart disease and other conditions. What to do? According to the American Cancer Society, the key is to make sure your consumption averages out to less than one drink a day (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1 1/2 ounces of liquor all count as one serving). Cutting white wine with club soda or having a couple of cocktails on weekends and none during the week can help, as can a daily 400-milligram supplement of folic acid, recently shown to slightly offset the risk associated with moderate alcohol consumption, says Rachel Zinaman, RD, a dietitian at the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. "But if you're at high risk for breast cancer, consider not drinking at all -- or drinking just on special occasions," she adds.

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