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Confronting breast cancer: Be aware, informed and empowered

The average woman has a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer during her lifetime. It's also the second main cause of cancer death in women, right behind lung cancer. Fortunately, fewer women today are dying from breast cancer. This is mostly due to improved breast cancer prevention and detection, as well as advances in breast cancer treatment.

Some of the risk factors for breast cancer can't be changed—your age, gender or genetic background, for example. Women diagnosed with certain benign breast conditions might have an increased risk of breast cancer. And in general, women who begin menstruating at a very young age and cycle their periods for a long time without interruption may have a higher the risk of breast cancer.

But there are a number of risk factors you can control. For example, you should maintain a healthy body weight, eat a low-fat diet, not smoke, limit the use of alcohol, take Vitamin D and get regular exercise. Doing all of these won't hurt, and studies show they might lower your risk of breast cancer. Other implied helpful actions associated with lowering your risk are having a baby before the age of 30 and breast feeding.

A more aggressive preventive approach for women identified as high risk is to take medications called chemo prevention. There are a number to choose from, and which drug you take depends on whether you're pre- or post-menopausal. There are always risks associated with drugs so these medications are for high-risk women only.

I urge women to be active partners in breast cancer detection and prevention. Genetics are the basis for many conditions so find out your family's health history. Go back three generations and ascertain what your relatives died from. Even though 80 percent of women who get breast cancer don't have a strong family history of it, genetics do have an influence on that other 20 percent.

If you're 40 and over, routine mammography, clinical breast examination and breast self-examination are the basic screening tools for early detection of breast cancer. Technology is always improving, and new screening methods such as tomosynthesis (3-D mammography) are useful in the early detection of breast cancer.


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