How to reduce your breast cancer risk at every age

Protect your health with our by-the-decade guide to breast-cancer prevention

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In your 20s

Party smart:
Alcohol is a carcinogen, so in this area moderation is key. The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation recommends having less than one drink a day (17 ml of alcohol, which works out to one  5-oz. glass of wine or less than a pint of beer). One drink a day increases a woman’s relative risk of breast cancer by 13 percent, the more you drink, the higher the risk.

Don’t smoke: Experts agree lighting up regularly is a no-no, but don’t forget social smoking and second-hand smoke count too. Until we know for sure just how much of a link exists between tobacco and breast cancer, the healthiest strategy is to avoid exposure as much as possible.

Eat well and exercise: Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the key factors in warding off breast cancer. Eat a diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and stay away from fat and refined sugars. And regular physical activity can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer by as much as 30 percent.

Get to know your girls: If you know how your breasts normally look and feel, it’s easy to catch tiny changes that could hint at a larger problem. Don’t worry about following any particular steps, just watch for differences in size and shape, unusual and persistent pain, swelling under the armpit or collarbone, changes to skin texture and unusual discharge or rashes. If changes don’t go away after one menstrual cycle, talk to your doctor.

Find out your family history: One close female relative (sister, mother or daughter) diagnosed with breast cancer doubles your risk. Two diagnoses and you’re five times as likely to develop the disease. Knowing this helps your doctor decide what measures to take, and when.

In your 30s

Take vitamin D: Research suggests women with high levels of vitamin D are twice as likely to survive breast cancer. Since many Canadians spend a lot of time in low sunlight conditions, it’s a good idea to up your intake. Eat more fatty fish and eggs, and ask your doctor or pharmacist about supplements.

Close the blinds: Many studies link exposure to light at night with an increased breast cancer risk. Researchers think it’s due to melatonin. Your body needs darkness to activate melatonin production, so if you work at night or live in an area with a lot of light pollution, your levels may be low.

Listen to your intuition: Younger women’s breasts are often more dense and they’re more likely to develop benign lumps. But just because a change is likely to be nothing to worry about doesn’t mean you should be passive. If you see a physical change in your breasts and your gut says something is wrong, be firm and follow up with your doctor.

Get clinical exams: Mammograms aren’t recommended for younger women, but some screening is still necessary. Discuss pros and cons of a clinical breast exam with your doctor every three years.

In your 40s and beyond

Maximize your screening options: Once you hit 40, it’s time to talk to your doctor about your risks for breast cancer and mammography. Even if you’re at an average risk, it’s worth checking in to see if starting screening earlier is right for you. Canadian guidelines suggest having mammograms when you turn 50, once every two to three years.

Keep up the good work: Continue everything you did in your 20s and 30s, including eating right, not smoking, limiting alcohol, exercising, etc.

To read real life stories on how early detection of breast cancer can save your life, click here.

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