1. Find out how dense you are
One of the newest ways to protect yourself is to learn whether you have dense breasts. 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 your cancer risk up to 6 times higher. 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.
2. Get moving
Exercise seems to protect against breast cancer in several ways. First, it helps control weight. An American Cancer Society study found that women who’d gained 21 to 30 pounds since age 18 were 40% more likely to develop breast cancer than those who hadn’t gained more than 5 pounds. The reason: estrogen, which can stimulate cell overgrowth and breast cancer. Before menopause, most of a woman’s estrogen is produced by her ovaries; after menopause, when ovaries stop producing the hormone, most of the estrogen comes from fat tissue. The more fat in a woman’s body, the more estrogen.
3. Know your family cancer history—even your dad’s
About 5 to 10% of breast cancer is hereditary, passed from one generation to the next via a variety of mutated genes. Your father’s family counts as much as your mother’s. And look at your family’s history of other kinds of cancer, too. Men can carry some of the same aberrant genes, such as BRCA1 and 2, that up the risk of not only breast cancer but also ovarian cancer in women, pancreatic cancer in men and women, and early prostate and testicular cancers in men. Also, multiple diagnoses on either side of your family can be a clue to a hereditary link.