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How to Fight Breast Cancer at Any Age

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What to Do in Your 20s

Breast cancer probably isn't top-of-mind for most twenty-somethings. But this is the decade when you need to start being especially vigilant. Just ask Amy Rhoades, now 21.

In September 2007, Amy started her junior year at the College of Idaho in the prime of her athletic career. She played second base on the varsity softball team and was dominant on her school's soccer squad, where she was goalie. One day that month, Amy performed a routine breast self-exam and felt what she describes as "a bouncy ball" on her left breast. In disbelief, she notified her doctor the next day and had her first-ever mammogram and sonogram two days later. That bouncy ball, it turned out, was a 2.4-centimeter malignant tumor -- stage II cancer. Thankfully, it hadn't yet spread to her lymph nodes.

Almost instinctively, Amy relied on her physical and mental conditioning to cope. A goalie's primary mission on the field is to defend the turf, block invaders. She would do the same with cancer. So she had a lumpectomy to remove the mass, followed by six rounds of chemotherapy. Then, because of her age and the fact that her cancer was of the HER-2 positive variety, which is particularly aggressive, her doctors recommended that she avoid radiation and have a double mastectomy.

"The surgery at first seemed way too radical to me, especially because my lymph nodes didn't show any cancer after the lumpectomy," says Amy. "But the more I learned about my options, the more readily I agreed to it. I feel it gave me the best chance of not having to worry about this again."

More than a year after the operation, follow-up tests detect no cancer in her body. As she returns to training and competing, she has some advice for other young women: "Make breast self-exams part of your routine. Learn how your breasts feel at all times of the month. If something doesn't seem right, make a big deal about it."

Here are some more ways that you can stay healthy now:

Break a sweat

"Regular physical activity reverses the effects of high insulin and estrogen levels -- both of which have been linked to an increase in breast cancer risk," says Douglas Yee, MD, director of the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota. In the Nurses' Health Study II of nearly 65,000 women, those who reported an average of 3.25 hours per week of running or 13 hours per week of walking when they were younger had a 23 percent lower risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer than those who exercised less. Activity from ages 12 to 22 seemed to provide the strongest protection against cancer, the researchers say.

Have a baby

Hey, it's your life. All we're saying, or rather, all science is saying, is that as far as breast cancer goes, having a baby lowers your risk. Furthermore, it's better to procreate sooner than later. "Women who have children at a younger age are at a decreased risk," says Kala Visvanathan, MD, a medical oncologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. Not only that, breastfeeding lowers your breast cancer risk as well.

Cut back on the cosmos

Experts have linked alcohol consumption to an increase in breast cancer risk. A study from the British Journal of Cancer shows a 7 percent hike for every drink per day. So try not to let happy hour get too happy.

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