Photo: Courtesy of Dena Stern
Because your breasts actually change all the time due to factors like your weight and hormones, and breast tissue is naturally a little lumpy in the first place, doing a real self exam can be both confusing and intimidating. The good news: You don’t have to do them. You and your doctor just want to know your breasts well enough for you to be aware if anything changes. The National College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, the American Cancer Society, and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network all endorse breast self awareness, which is defined as a woman’s awareness of the normal appearance and feel of her breasts.
Get a doctor to check them out every one to three years
The American Cancer Society, the US Preventative Services Task Force, and the National Cancer institute all recommend that women between the ages of 20 and 39 go in at least once every three years for a clinical breast exam. According to Dr. Ladenburger, “The problem with self examination, the reason it is controversial right now, is that it is really hard to do. You’re just sort of feeling around and it can be hard to know if normal breast tissue irregularities are something to worry about. So, the best thing you can do is to know your breasts, check them occasionally for changes, and get someone else to check them, too. Someone who knows what they are looking for, like your doctor.”
Sure, lots of lumps that women find end up being nothing. Fibroadenomas (non-cancerous breast lumps) occur in about 10 percent of all women and are especially common in women in their 20s and 30s. In fact, they account for about half of the 1.6 million breast biopsies doctors perform each year in the U.S. But, your doctor would much rather you come in for nothing, than not come in at all. When breast cancer is caught early the survival rate is over 90 percent, but once it spreads to other parts of the body, the survival rate drops to less than 25 percent.
Keep your weight in check
The latest research suggests that there is a very real connection between being overweight and having an increased chance of getting breast (and other) cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute website, a projection of the future health and economic burden of obesity in 2030 found that if every adult reduced her BMI by one percent (weight loss of 2.2 lbs for an adult of average weight) it could actually result in the avoidance of about 100,000 new cases of cancer.
Exercise on the regular
If you needed another reason to drag your butt to the gym, here’s a really good one: According to the National Cancer Institute, exercising four or more hours a week may decrease hormone levels and help lower breast cancer risk. The link between exercise and reduced breast cancer risk is greater in premenopausal (young) women of normal or low weight. That means getting in a workout will have the largest impact for you, right now. “I can’t emphasize enough, for so many reasons, how good it is to get a little exercise every day,” says Dr. Fracchia. “It’s something I tell every single one of my patients to do."
Limit your drinks
To reduce your risk of breast cancer, many doctors recommend that you limit yourself to no more than seven drinks in a week. "It’s not dogma, but research is showing that drinking more than a drink a day has a marked increase on your risk of getting breast cancer. I’ve heard it enough times from people who know that I feel like I have to mention this one,” Dr. Fracchia says. “I’m not telling anyone not to drink at all, but the evidence is showing that if someone is drinking 10 or 20 drinks a week, they are going to have an increased risk of breast cancer – and that seems to me like a really good reason to try to drink in moderation.”
Photos: Courtesy of Dena Stern