The first time you purchased a bra, you likely had one of two thoughts about your breasts: you loved them, or you hated them. Your entire teenage life, your breasts constantly reminded you that you were a woman in training. You wanted them to grow bigger—and probably wished they’d stop growing at some point. Insecurities no doubt got to your head: Why is the left one bigger than the right one? Why aren’t they round like hers? Why are they getting so droopy?
The truth is, no matter how conflicted you are about your breasts, they are part of your identity—which may be why, in part, having breast cancer is one of the most terrifying things to think about. Your breasts can say a lot about your health: they can signal weight gain, fluctuating hormones, and pregnancy.
As for lumps and bumps? You already know that can be a sign of something more sinister:. Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in U.S. women, with 1 in 8 women being affected by the disease, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
One bit of good news: fewer women are getting and dying from breast cancer than ever before. “Cancer is not an inevitability. Women have more control over the disease than they think,” says Margaret I. Cuomo, MD, author of A World Without Cancer. “Everything we do from the moment we wake—from what we eat and drink to whether or not we exercise and avoid BPA, parabens, and other carcinogenic chemicals—is a factor that can turn on or off the genetic switches in our bodies, including ones that could lead to cancer. The risk of many cancers, including, can be significantly reduced by living a healthy lifestyle.”
Unfortunately, the biggest risk for breast cancer is simply being a woman—but taking certain measures can reduce your chances of developing the disease. Here’s where to start.
1Find out how dense your breasts are
Why it’s important: Learning whether you have dense breasts is one of the newest ways to protect yourself. When you have more tissue than fat in your breasts—which is common in younger women—it makes cancer harder to detect on a mammogram: Both tumors and breast tissue show up white, while fat looks dark.
Even more important, having dense breasts makes you six times more likely to develop cancer. Experts aren’t sure why that is, but one possibility is the fact that there is no standardization for measurement of breast density, so doctors’ scores are subjective.
A majority of states have enacted bills that require your health care provider to provide information about your breast density on your mammogram report. Several other states are working on or have at least introduced similar bills. (Find out where your state stands here.)
Take action: Even if your breast density is low, you still need regular checkups. If it’s high, there’s nothing you can do to lower it (though breast density does tend to decrease with age), but you can protect yourself by asking your doctor about adding an MRI or ultrasound to your screening regimen. You can also switch from traditional mammography to digital. Since it’s higher in contrast, it’s easier for doctors to see abnormalities in dense breast tissue.