The latest recommendation from the American Cancer Society considers “breast awareness” to be the most important factor in preventing breast cancer in young women. However, what does breast awareness mean?
“To me, that still means a monthly self-exam,” says Rebecca Tuttle, MD, surgical oncologist with Kettering Cancer Care. “Breast awareness means knowing your normal. Is the skin puckering? Is there a mass? Are you having nipple discharge? You should be able to identify a change in your breast.”
What else does breast awareness mean?
Dr. Tuttle explains that she commonly has conversations with younger patients about breast density. Some women have naturally dense breasts, which is important to know when identifying new lumps or masses. “If your breast tissue is always lumpy, your goal is to be able to identify a change or if something is different,” says Dr. Tuttle.
In addition to knowing your baseline of what your breasts typically feel like, breast awareness also encompasses knowledge of your personal risks. If you have a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer, your OB-GYN or primary care physician may have different recommendations for when you should begin breast screenings, including mammographic screening.
How can I reduce my risk of breast cancer?
“An enormous cancer prevention is maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr. Tuttle. This includes sustaining a healthy weight, incorporating routine physical activity, and eating a healthy diet.
Some risk factors for breast cancer are not modifiable—such as family history and genetics—but it’s important to be aware of them. Total lifetime estrogen exposure can be a contributing risk or preventive factor as well. For example, if a woman starts her period earlier in life, or goes through menopause later in life, this increases her lifetime estrogen exposure, and can be a risk factor for breast cancer. Alternately, breast feeding and oral contraceptive pills decrease risk.
The most important thing you can do for your health is simply to know yourself; some risk factors are uncontrollable, but if you have an early awareness of your comprehensive health and family history, you and your doctor can ensure you are getting the appropriate screenings at the appropriate times.