Chances are you know someone who’s had breast cancer. After all, estimates suggest that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.
Thankfully, because of the many advancements in breast cancer research over the last few decades, the number of women who die from the disease continues to decrease. “There is an almost 99 percent five-year survival rate for women diagnosed at an early stage of the disease,” notes Danielle Henry, M.D., a breast surgical oncologist at Orlando Health.
With this information in mind, here’s what you can do to stay on top of your breast health and ensure you detect any issues as early as possible.
Understand your risk factors
“Knowing your breast cancer risk is vital so that you and your doctor can create a specific breast cancer screening plan,” says Dr. Jane Kakkis, M.D., medical director of breast surgery at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in California.
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If you’re not sure whether any of your family members have been diagnosed with breast cancer, start inquiring. While a cancer diagnosis is personal information, it can also be life-saving information when in the right hands. “Risk factors include a family history of breast and other cancers (both mother and father’s side), history of genetic mutation on either side of the family, and personal history of breast and other related cancers,” says Kakkis. “When you have a family history of breast cancer, it is recommended you start screening about 10 years prior to the age of the youngest family member with a cancer diagnosis.”
Dense breast tissue is another risk factor—but typically isn’t a concern until women begin mammograms in their 40s, says Henry.
Perform monthly self-exams
The American Cancer Society recommends that every woman at every age should perform self-exams once a month. These self-exams help familiarize you with the way your breasts normally feel so that you notice even slight changes, explains Henry.
A great time to perform self-exams is in the shower. She recommends starting facing the mirror with your arms down and looking for changes in your skin such as dimpling or puckering. Next, while standing up in the shower, lift one arm over your head. Use the opposite hand to apply firm pressure to your breast and armpit and feel for masses or unusual texture.
“It’s not about being an expert in breast exams but being an expert of your body,” Henry says. “This way, you’re able to be the first person to detect a change.”
The average lump found by women who do regular self-exams is the size of a quarter, she explains. The average lump found accidentally, though, is the size of a silver dollar.
Get mammograms annually starting at age 40
The critical key to early-stage diagnosis? Routine breast screenings. The American Cancer Society recommends that women begin annual mammograms at age 40. Women 55 and older can then switch to mammograms every other year.
Your genetics impact when you should start screening, though. “Women who are at an increased risk for breast cancer may need to begin screening early and/or include annual MRI to their annual mammogram screenings,” says Henry. “Genetic testing and tools like the Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool and the Tyrer-Cuzick Calculator can help your physician determine if you are at an increased risk for developing breast cancer.”
If you have a family history of breast cancer, you will likely need to start receiving mammograms before 40, Kakkis says. If you haven’t already, discuss this with your physician.
Otherwise, make sure to start receiving annual mammograms at age 40. If you can, stick to the same facility year after year, suggests Henry. “If you do change facilities, be sure to bring all your prior breast imaging for comparison so that the radiologist can properly determine subtle changes on your mammograms,” she adds.
Advocate for yourself
Your doctor’s job is to provide you with the best healthcare possible. However, you are the one living in your body. If something feels off to you, request testing until you have a definitive answer.
Decreasing Your Risk
In addition to genetics, many lifestyle habits and exposures—including smoking, alcohol consumption, a high-sugar diet, and lack of physical exercise—increase your breast cancer risk, according to the American Cancer Society.
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For this reason, Henry recommends consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens). Another must: at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Whether that’s a gym session, a walk outside, or a dance party in your living room is up to you.
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