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In Your 20s
Know your risk. “When you’re young, get as much information as you can [about your family history] because the people to ask might not be around later on,” says Larry Norton, M.D., deputy physician-in-chief for breast cancer programs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Knowing which relatives have had cancer will help you and your doctor determine if you should pursue more serious measures, like genetic testing for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer genes. If you and your doctor determine you are at a significant risk of developing breast cancer, you may even consider a prophylactic mastectomy, which will reduce your risk by 90 percent. Younger women who are at a high risk for ovarian cancer may opt to have their ovaries removed after having children, which reduces the risk for breast cancer by 50 percent, says Brown.
Consider your birth control options. More than a dozen studies involving hundreds of women compiled and reviewed by Komen for the Cure concluded that the risk of breast cancer increased 10 to 30 percent in women taking birth control pills. This might seem like a large increase, but women using birth control pills long-term tend to have a very low risk to begin with. The jury is still out on injected contraceptives, like Depo-Provera, and the birth control patch, but Brown says, “The newer forms of oral contraceptives have smaller amounts of hormones than what were used in these studies, so we’re expecting to find even lower risk.” Though birth control pills have come a long way, Norton says women should consider barrier methods, if possible, and avoid taking any other products that may contain estrogen. Talk to your doctor to make an informed decision about what form is best for you.
Schedule your first exam. Beginning at age 20, you should start getting a clinical breast exam every three years when you visit the gynecologist. If you’re at a higher risk for breast cancer--say, if you have a family history of it--consider getting an exam every year, says Katherine Lee, M.D., a breast specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Women’s Health Institute.
Know yourself. Being able to recognize changes in your breasts is vital, which means you should know how they normally look and feel. Whether you do this through a Breast Self Exam (BSE), or a more informal process of looking and touching, experts agree that it’s key to know what’s normal for your body. The American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure no longer recommend giving yourself a BSE, since it’s unclear if BSEs improve survival rates. Instead, Komen for the Cure recommends breast self-awareness, which means you should see your health care provider immediately if you notice a lump, hard knot or thickening, swelling, warmth, redness or darkening, change in the size or shape of the breast, dimpling or puckering of the skin, an itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple, pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast, nipple discharge that starts suddenly or new pain in one spot that does not go away.
In Your 30s >>
In Your 40s >>
In Your 50s >>