1. Know your family's health history
The average woman has between a 12% and 20% chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. However these risks increase if there is a history of breast cancer in your family, specifically close female relatives (your mom, aunt, sister, daughter). If you're not sure of your family's history – illness, especially since cancer, tends to be hushed up – you need to ask the right questions, even if they make your relatives a little uncomfortable. After all we're talking about information that could save your life!
If you do have a family history of breast cancer...
You need to be extra vigilant about your self-examinations, go for regular annual checkups (including a breast exam) with your GP or gynae, and discuss starting a programme of annual mammograms at an earlier stage – in your 30s, instead of 40s.
2. Drop those extra kilos
Researchers are finding growing links between obesity and the incidence of breast cancer. There are a couple of reasons thought to be behind this: firstly overweight women produce more oestrogen than normal weight or slim women, and there are a number of cancers know to be stimulated by high levels of oestrogen. Secondly breast cancer is often detected much later in overweight women – because of all the extra padding, it makes it difficult to feel or see lumps and changes to the breasts –which can decrease your chances of treating the cancer successfully.
Why doctors say this is important:
Unlike your family history, which you can't change, this is one variable you do have a say about – you can choose to lose those extra kilos even if it takes some work.
3. Breastfeed for longer
Breastfeeding isn't just best for your child, it has some pretty good health benefits for you too. Studies of over 50 000 women in 30 countries found that the longer a woman breastfed, the more they were protected against breast cancer.
Breast is best
Unless you have a medical reason for not breastfeeding (moms who are HIV positive should not breastfeed), go for it or encourage your friends who have young babies to stick with it.
4. Cut down on your alcohol intake
A glass of red wine might be good for your heart, but even half a glass a day can increase your risk of developing breast cancer, say scientists. The risks get worse the more you drink: women who drank one to two glasses of alcohol a day faced an increased risk of 21%; those who drank more than two drinks a day were 37% more likely to develop breast cancer! And unfortunately, it doesn't matter what you drink – beer, wine, spirits – they all have the same effect when it comes to increasing your risks!
5. Do a breast self examination every month
Time: 10 minutes
When: About a week after your period. If you're no longer menstruating, or you're pregnant, pick the same day every month.
How: In the shower or bath – use your fingertips to explore your breast and underarm areas. Raise one arm and place the hand behind your head. With your other hand, move the pads of your fingertips over the breast in a circular motion. Don't forget to include the nipple and armpit areas. Repeat on both breasts use the opposite hand.
In front of the mirror – lift your arms above your head and check for changes in the size, shape and contour of your breasts. Look out for any nipple discharge.
Lying down – tuck your arm behind your head; use the fingertips of the other hand to feel the opposite breasts ;move over the breast in a circular pattern and include the armpit and nipple areas. Repeat on the other breast.
Remember that you don't get breast cancer from...
Wearing a bra
About ten years ago, two researchers published a book detailing how too-tight bras prevented the breasts from getting ridof toxins in the tissue. This, they concluded, increased a woman's risk of developing cancer (because of all the "trapped" toxins). And of course many of women read the book and got pretty freaked out...
The good news is, there's no real evidence that bras do what the researchers claimed (trap lymph vessels) – or that bra wearing has any link to breast cancer.
There's a nasty rumour doing the rounds on the Internet: that using deodorant causes cancer (because toxins get "trapped" under the arms when the body isn't allowed to sweat normally). Cancer experts are eager to point out that this is simply not true – the incidence of breast cancer has not changed much since the introduction of antiperspirants decades ago; and if deodorant really did cause cancer, it would have also caused an increase in breast cancer in men who use a lot more antiperspirant than women do, which is not the case.
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