wellness·4 min read

What You Need to Know About Breast Cancer Prevention

What You Need to Know About Breast Cancer Prevention
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Getty Images
Oct 7, 2020

The Story

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Time to break out your pink ribbons and read up on how to fight the disease with proactive knowledge.

What do I need to know?

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women—skin cancer gets the (worst ever) first prize. There is about a 13% chance, or 1 in 8, that a woman will get breast cancer in her lifetime. It’s also the second-leading cause of cancer death in women. 

But I’m youngish. I’m fine, right?

It depends. Age does increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer. The median age at diagnosis is 62. Women under 40—aka millennials and younger—are much less likely to get it. About 4% of women diagnosed are under 40. But there are certain groups of women at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

What would make me higher risk?  

  • Family history…This one might seem obvious, but turns out there are a lot of different types of family history. If you have one grandmother who got breast cancer at 75, you don’t need to worry more than the average woman. And you’re only at moderate risk if, say, your mom and aunt both got it in their 60s. But if you have one or more family members diagnosed under 50, your doctor may recommend genetic testing for mutations in the genes associated with breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2. More on that later. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of these risk categories.

  • Breast tissue density...Yes, this is a thing and no, it has nothing to do with cup size. Having “dense breasts”—or a high amount of glandular and fibrous tissue versus fatty tissue in the breasts—can put you at higher risk of getting breast cancer. It also makes it harder to detect the disease. Almost half of women over 40 who get mammograms find out they have dense breasts.

  • Radiation therapy...If you’ve undergone radiation therapy on your chest before age 30, which is common for treating diseases like Hodgkin’s lymphoma, you’re more likely to get breast cancer.

  • Reproductive history...Getting your period before age 12 or having kids after age 35 could put you at a higher risk of developing breast cancer later on.

Talk to me about treatment.

Depending on age and how far the cancer has spread, there are a number of treatment options for breast cancer. These include surgery to remove the cancer, chemotherapy to shrink or kill the cancer cells, hormone therapy to block the cells from getting hormones that make them grow, biological or targeted therapy to use the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells, or radiation therapy to kill cancer cells. 

What about something more experimental?

Clinical trials can be a great way to take advantage of emerging medical advances. They’re basically research projects that test promising new treatments. Here is a resource to find and look into breast cancer trials to discuss with your doctor.

What measures should I be taking?

While it’s rare for women under 40 to get breast cancer, proactive prevention can start earlier. If you’re at an average risk and below age 40, diet and exercise are some of the most important measures you can take. If this whole “exercise and healthy weight” thing sounds like a broken medical record, it’s because it’s the bedrock of any healthy lifestyle. Doctors recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. Think: raising your heart rate like you would on a brisk walk. 

Ok, we get it. Exercise is good. But what about if I’m high risk?

Your doctor may recommend genetic testing for mutations in those BRCA genes we mentioned earlier. Having mutations in either gene raises the risk of getting breast and ovarian cancer. For patients with a mutation, doctors may recommend preventative medicine—like tamoxifen or raloxifene—to manage estrogen in breast tissue and lower risk. In select cases, they may recommend preventive surgery like a mastectomy (breast removal) or oophorectomy (ovary removal).

When should I start getting mammograms?

There are some different opinions on this one, so talk to your doctor (sensing a pattern?). The American Cancer Society recommends women with average risk should start getting annual mammograms at age 45.

What about self-exams?

Depends who you ask. Some health care providers and resources recommend monthly self-exams, but others—including the American Cancer Society and the organization the CDC uses for breast cancer guidelines— say ‘eh, not necessary.’ They don’t recommend self-exams for screening because of studies showing that self-exams do not decrease mortality. But still, many women and doctors think it can’t hurt to do a self-exam every month, and that getting to know the feel and shape of your breasts can help detect breast cancer. Thing to know: Breast cancer doesn’t always cause a lump you can feel, and there can be other symptoms to look out for. But premenopausal women (hello, millennials) are encouraged to conduct self-exams toward the end of their period, when breasts are less tender. Here’s a closer look at how to do a breast self-exam.


Breast cancer awareness might seem like something that you can put on your future self’s to-do list. But because it’s the second most common cancer for women, it’s worth getting educated now so that you aren't surprised later.

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