When it comes to young women and breast cancer, there’s good news and bad news. The good: Their chances of having the disease are much lower than an older woman’s. The bad: If cancer does strike, it can be more aggressive, says Debra Mangino, M.D., of New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
But a healthy lifestyle can help protect your breasts. These are the changes and early-detection methods experts say are key:
1. Stay at a Healthy Weight
Being heavy can increase your risk of developing the disease as well as reduce your risk of surviving it, says Harold Freeman, M.D., president and founder of the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer and Prevention in New York City.
2. Break a Sweat
Aim to exercise for 45 minutes to an hour five days a week. Regular fitness workouts may help prevent the disease by boosting immune function, warding off obesity, and lowering levels of estrogen and insulin.
3. Drink Less Alcohol
Research has shown that two drinks a day could increase breast cancer risk by 21 percent. Instead, try swapping wine for fresh grapes. Resveratrol, found in the skin of grapes, may help reduce your estrogen levels, which in turn may reduce your risk.
4. Eat Your Veggies
A low-fat diet can do a lot to reduce your risk, but for even more protection, add some cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and kale, to your plate. They contain sulforaphane, which is believed to help prevent cancer cells from multiplying. For an extra dose of cancer-fighting power, eat them raw.
5. Know Your Family History
“In about 15 percent of breast cancer cases, there is a family history of the disease,” Freeman says. If you have one first-degree relative who had breast cancer, your lifetime risk doubles, and if you have two your risk increases five-fold.
6. Get Checked
All women should have a clinical breast exam at least every three years and annual exams and mammograms starting at age 40. Women with a family history should begin screening 10 years prior to the family member’s age of diagnosis. Ask if the facility offers digital mammography–it allows for adjustments in contrast so the image can be easier to see. Young women at increased risk may also want to ask for either an MRI or a sonogram in addition to the mammogram.
7. Consider Genetic Testing
“When cancer strikes young women, it’s more likely to be connected to a BRCA mutation,” Mangino says. Two red flags for being a BRCA carrier: being of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent or having a family history of both breast and ovarian cancer. “If you have either of these factors, see a genetic counselor to talk about getting tested,” she says.