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Almost one out of nine women is expected to develop breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women.
So far, researchers haven't found any fool-proof way to prevent breast cancer except voluntary mastectomy (surgical removal of the breasts) for women at extremely high risk. Short of taking this drastic step, the best way a woman can protect herself against breast cancer is by practicing early detection methods and by reducing known risk factors. If breast cancer is found and treated early—before it has spread beyond the breast—the five-year survival rate is greater than 95 percent.
Are You at Risk?
Over 200,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Here are the common risk factors associated with the disease:
Being female. Breast cancer is most prevalent in women, although men can develop the disease as well. While Caucasian women are more likely to develop breast cancer than African-American females, the death rates are 30 percent higher for African-Americans.
Getting your period young. Starting your period before the age of 12 increases your chances of developing breast cancer, possibly due to greater exposure to hormones over the course of a lifetime.
Family history. If anyone in your immediate family (mother, sister, or daughter) has had breast cancer, you are also at greater risk. Breast cancer can run in families, but this does not mean you will automatically develop the disease. Genetic testing and counseling is available for women concerned about their risk.
Late childbearing or no childbearing. Becoming pregnant for the first time at age 26 or older—or never getting pregnant at all—puts you at risk. In contrast, having multiple children reduces your risk of developing breast cancer, possibly because of protective hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy.
Heavy drinking. While the occasional alcoholic drink is okay, consuming more than two drinks per day increases your chances of developing breast cancer. Women who consume two to five drinks each day are about 1-1/2 times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who don’t drink.
Smoking, especially at a young age. Studies have suggested that smoking at an early age can increase your risk of breast cancer. A study by the Dankook University College of Medicine in Korea found that the breast cancer-promoting effects of smoking were strongest in young women who had not yet had children. The risk may be lower after childbearing because, by then, breast cells have finished developing and are less vulnerable to carcinogens.
Being overweight. General obesity has been associated with increased breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women. But the amount of weight gained in adult life is a greater predictor of breast cancer risk than weight alone, according to a study from Morehead State University in Kentucky. Their researchers found that women who gained more than 60 pounds between age 20 and menopause had a roughly 70 percent higher risk of breast cancer, compared with women who gained fewer than 20 pounds. There was a 4 percent increase in risk for each 11 pounds gained as an adult.
Eating a high-fat diet. In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the National Cancer Institute found that women who consumed the most fat—regardless of what type—were 15% more likely to develop breast cancer than women who ate the least fat.
Hormone replacement therapy. Studies have shown a strong link between post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and breast cancer. If you need HRT, talk to your doctor to determine your personal risk level.
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