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Time to Think About Breast Cancer

Although most women donít like to think about breast cancer, we canít ignore the facts - by age 75, the average woman has a nine percent chance of developing the disease. The odds of beating breast cancer, however, are better than ever. During October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, take the time to learn what you can do to increase your chances of survival.

There are several risk factors for breast cancer including age, genetics and family history. These factors play a very important role in determining your chances of getting breast cancer. For instance, if you have a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer, your risk is doubled. If you have two first-degree relatives with the disease, your risk is increased five-fold. If you carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations (as determined by genetic testing in families suspected of having inherited breast cancer), your risk of developing breast cancer is 50-85 percent by age 70, though this is rare.

The good news is that the death rate from the disease has steadily declined over the past decade because of several factors. Thanks largely to widespread use of mammography, many breast cancers are now spotted before they have spread, giving most women an excellent chance of cure. In addition, breast cancer biopsy techniques have become more precise and less traumatic.

Side effects of cancer treatment have also become less debilitating. New classes of drugs have improved survival rates for women with advanced disease, and newer and better agents are on the horizon.

The best thing you can do is to aim for early detection. Here are a few tips:

- Beginning in your 20s, start examining your breasts monthly. Learn the unique features of your own breasts so you can recognize changes. A "lump" will usually seem obvious in an area of normal lumpiness. If you feel something unusual, check it out with your doctor, but donít panic: 80 percent of lumps and other suspicious lesions are not cancerous. Begin having yearly mammograms at age 40. Mammography is the primary tool for evaluating your breasts and can spot 80-90 percent of breast cancers. When something suspicious is found, your physician may order an ultrasound, which provides additional information. Only a biopsy (removal of tissue), however, can accurately tell whether any lump is or is not cancerous. Although some risk factors cannot be changed, you can also take steps to prevent breast cancer.

- Limit hormone replacement therapy. More than five years of hormone replacement therapy after menopause has been shown to increase breast cancer risk. Limit alcohol. Alcohol has been linked to increased blood levels of estrogen, and it may also interfere with the bodyís use of folate, which protects against tumor growth. In several studies, women who have two or more drinks per day (or even less in some studies) are about 40 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than are women who do not drink alcohol. Avoid weight gain during adulthood. One study found those postmenopausal women who gained more than 45 pounds since age 18 had an increased risk. This may have to do with the production of estrogen from fat. Exercise. Postmenopausal women exercising for at least one hour a week are 20 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than sedentary women.

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