We Need More than Breast Cancer Awareness

How to Use What You Know to Save Your Life

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It’s been 25 years since the first pink ribbons appeared to commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In that time, we’ve seen a reduction in breast cancer for women over the age of 50 and a decline in overall death rates, thanks in large part to better screening and early detection.

Yet despite this success, there remains a big gap between awareness and prevention. Breast cancer is still the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. This year, more than 250,000 will receive the life-changing news that they are the one in eight who will be diagnosed in their lifetime. Understanding that breast cancer is a threat to all women is the first important step, but prevention is what will save your life.

Your family history isn’t the only deciding factor. Lifestyle choices can raise your risk, and these are decisions you have the power to control. Tackling this list can move your needle from general breast cancer awareness to active prevention, which is really what we’re after this month—and every month as we spread awareness about breast cancer.

  1. Drinking alcohol. The amount you drink is directly proportional to your breast cancer risk. One drink a day results in only a moderate increase, but three drinks a day increases risk by 15 percent.

  2. Being overweight. The relationship between weight and breast cancer is complex, especially as you age. Extra fat can result in an increase in estrogen as well as higher blood insulin levels, both of which have been linked to breast cancer.

  3. Lack of physical activity. This is tied to all sorts of health problems, and breast cancer is no exception. Since physical activity is linked to weight gain, it’s a natural trigger for breast cancer.

  4. Hormone therapy. Hormone therapy to treat menopause symptoms increases your breast cancer risk, so talk to your provider about alternatives, or stick to a small dose for a limited time.

  5. Reproductive history. Pregnancy—especially before the age of 30—and breastfeeding can reduce your odds of breast cancer, largely because they reduce lifetime exposure to hormones and impact the makeup of breast cells.

  6. Smoking. Smoking is pretty much a cancer risk across the board, but people who smoke increase their breast cancer risk by 35 percent, and that risk lingers for at least two decades after quitting.

Compared to lung or prostate cancer, Breast Cancer Awareness Month generates a healthy surge in online interest and research. But despite peaks in attention, translating what you know into action can be challenging, and many women struggle even as they embrace walks, pink ribbons and all sorts of other awareness efforts. While you can’t change your gender, age or family history, you can fight breast cancer before it fights you. Remember to perform regular self-exams, schedule an annual clinical exam, and based on your age and the advice of your health care practitioner, get a mammogram. This month, consider ways to translate your awareness into action and encourage the women in your life to do the same. It can save your life – or the life of someone you care about.

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