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Chances are that you’ve heard the frightening statistic of “one in seven”—that one in seven women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Some risk factors, such as family history, can’t be changed, but others can. Read on to learn how you can help protect your health and reduce your risk of breast cancer in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.

In your 20s

According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women. However, your chance of developing it in your 20s is relatively low. Less than one half of 1 percent of women get breast cancer before the age of 39. However, there are things you can do to avoid contracting breast cancer later in life.

Check your family history. The greatest risk for breast cancer is in your own genes. If you have certain genetic mutations, called BRCA1 or BRCA2, you’re at much higher risk for developing the disease. “Somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of women with these genes 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, DNSc, RN, clinical professor of hematology/oncology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “Over a lifetime, it’s about a 95 percent risk.”

A simple blood test can tell you whether you carry one of these 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. According to Mahon, a woman’s breasts complete their development after a first pregnancy, which makes them less sensitive to cancer-causing substances. Obviously, this is only a benefit to early motherhood and shouldn’t be the reason to have a child.

Eat fruits and vegetables. Researchers are studying the effects of diet on breast cancer risk. According to the National Cancer Institute, it’s not yet proven that a low-fat diet or a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will prevent breast cancer, but a diet rich in beta-carotene may decrease your risk. Eat a healthy diet that includes foods high in beta-carotene, such as broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, squash, peaches, and apricots.

Check your breasts.Your doctor will perform a breast exam when you have 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 produce 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, have your doctor check it immediately. Also continue your healthy diet. In addition, there are other things you can do.

Avoid alcoholic beverages. Alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer. “Women who consistently drink one or two drinks every day have an elevated risk primarily because it enhances estrogen metabolism,” says Mahon. Therefore, the safest policy is to avoid alcohol altogether.

Get moving! Women who are sedentary have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer. So are women who are overweight—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 small increased risk of breast cancer, today’s pills contain a lower dose of hormones. The available data, however, suggests that there is still 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. Mahon says that this is somewhat related to the number of total ovulatory cycles that a woman has over a lifetime. Getting older is a risk factor you can’t change. The risk of breast cancer is also a bit higher if your first menstrual period was before the age of 12 and you have a relatively late menopause.

Get a mammogram annually. You should schedule your first mammogram (called a baseline) when you reach 40, and you should have one every year thereafter. However, if you know you have a high heredity risk or known mutation, you may start with a baseline as early as age 25.

Stay active. Keep up your healthy eating habits and your regular exercise program. “Exercise to maintain your weight and to decrease the number of fat cells you have,” recommends Mahon. Strength-building exercise like lifting weights helps 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.

Skip the soy. Researchers aren’t sure whether soy, which has a pseudoestrogenic effect, can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. If you have significant risk factors, you may want to avoid this food.

In your 50s and beyond

The risk of getting breast cancer gradually increases as a woman ages. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 75 percent of breast cancer cases occur after age 50. If you live to be 90, you have a 1 in 7 chance of developing the disease.

The previous advice applies to older women as well as to younger women, but over age 50 annual mammograms are even more important because of the heightened risk. In addition to the above advice, consider the following recommendation:

Question hormone replacement. Just as taking the pill may cause a small increase in the risk of breast cancer, so 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, and 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 a higher risk than others. However, you can have every risk factor and never get the disease, or you can have no risk factors and still 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 health care provider who is going to help you.”

Breast Cancer: How to Lower Your Risk

by Kelly James-Enger
From the May 2008 Signs