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Timely screenings, healthy habits, and awareness of risk factors are your best defense against breast cancer.

When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer today, she has more reason for optimism than ever before. Survival rates have been climbing in recent years, likely due to earlier detection and more advanced treatments. In fact, there are about 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the United States today. Still, this is no time to become complacent. A woman’s chance of developing invasive breast cancer is still about one in eight. Your best defense? Get screened regularly, understand your family history, and develop healthy habits to lower your risk as much as possible.

The Best Tests

Finding breast cancer early—when it’s small and hasn’t yet spread—increases the chances that treatment will work. In fact, experts believe that early detection saves thousands of lives every year.
In their 20s and 30s, women should have a clinical breast exam every three years, as part of their regular physical. Beginning at age 40, this exam should be done once a year. During a clinical breast exam, the doctor examines the breasts for visual changes and feels both the breasts and the underarm areas for lumps.

Brown & Toland recommends that women get a screening mammogram every two years, beginning at age 40. This low-dose X-ray of the breast can reveal abnormalities in the breast tissue, including cancer. The test isn’t perfect, but it is still a very good way to find most breast cancer. So pick a date—perhaps during your birthday month, which is easy to remember—and schedule a mammogram every other year.

Of course, women should also be aware of how their breasts look and feel so they’ll be more likely to spot unusual changes. If you notice a lump or swelling, skin irritation or scaliness, dimpling, nipple pain, or nipple discharge, be sure to make an appointment with your doctor. Meanwhile, try to stay calm. These changes do not necessarily signal cancer, but they are worth having checked out.

Once upon a time, doctors also encouraged women to perform a breast self-exam every month. It now appears, however, that self-exams play a very small role in detecting breast cancer. Two large trials—one in Russia and one in Shanghai—revealed that self-exams don’t actually decrease death rates from breast cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society now merely suggests self-exams as an option for women, beginning in their 20s. Talk to your doctor about whether regular self-exams are right for you and, if so, how to do them properly.

Women who have a higher risk of developing breast cancer may need to be even more vigilant. Have at least two of your close family members been diagnosed with breast cancer? Or has someone in your family been diagnosed with the disease before age 50? If so, let your doctor know so he or she can plan a customized screening program for you.

Women who have a strong family history of breast cancer may want to consider genetic testing. A genetic test can show whether you have an inherited altered gene that may increase your chance of getting breast cancer, such as breast cancer genes 1 and 2 (BRCA1 and BRCA2). The test, which requires just a blood sample, cannot predict with certainty whether you will get breast cancer, but it can help better determine your risk. Women who are considering genetic testing should talk to their doctor or genetic counselor beforehand to make sure they understand the test and its limitations.

Women who test positive for an altered gene have a variety of options. Based on discussions with their doctor, they may decide to simply continue regular screenings or take preventive measures. Preventive strategies include chemoprevention (taking drugs such as tamoxifen to lower breast cancer risk) or surgery (mastectomy or removal of the ovaries, which reduces estrogen production). These are obviously aggressive steps and should be discussed in depth with a doctor.

A Plan for Prevention

While screenings such as mammograms are an important part of detection, the decisions you make every day—from the snacks you choose to how much time you spend on the couch watching TV—can impact your chances of developing breast cancer. There’s no sure way to prevent the disease, but making some healthy changes can certainly lower your risk.

One of the best moves is to exercise and maintain a healthy weight. While the role of diet is still being studied, many experts suggest that women should eat a balanced, low-fat diet. It’s also a good idea to monitor your alcohol consumption, indulging in no more than one drink per day. Women who breastfeed for several months may also reduce their risk of developing breast cancer.

Scientists are making advances in breast cancer research, but it’s still up to women to be informed and proactive about their own health. Be attuned to your own body, get regular screenings, and ask your doctor questions. The more you know—and do—the better your chances of staying healthy for years to come.