Be Good to the "Girls" All Year

Not Just During Breast Cancer Awareness Month
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Each October, American women are urged to make annual mammograms and breast self-exams a priority during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). But breast health should be of ongoing importance to women all year long, says Dr. Scott Zevon, a leading plastic surgeon practicing at Central Park Plastic Surgery in New York. There are several ways that women can maintain good breast health year-round.

Improve the Diet, Exercise Regularly
Diet and exercise are especially important factors in maintaining breast health. A variety of studies have shown that obesity increases the likelihood of breast cancer after menopause; a likely trigger is the amount of estrogen produced by fatty tissue. Maintaining a healthy weight and having a diet containing plenty of fruit and vegetables is thought to decrease risk. Alcohol consumption has also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, and the risk increases according to the amount of alcohol consumed. Exercise may decrease hormone levels and that in turn reduces the risk of breast cancer; conversely, physical inactivity has been associated with a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Examine the Breasts
In addition to conducting a full physical self-exam each month, women should routinely examine their breasts for any of the following: lumps or knots; swelling or redness; change in breast size or shape; dimpled or puckered skin; a sore or rash on the nipple; and discharge from the nipple. Women should also note if pain develops in a breast that does not abate. A woman noticing any of these changes should discuss them with her health care professional.

Understand the Genetic Link
While genetics are not always at play in the development of breast cancer, women should understand how genetics affect the likelihood of developing breast cancer. Risk is highest if a woman has a "first-degree" family member (such as a mother or sister) who developed breast cancer, which roughly doubles the chances of developing breast cancer. The risk also increases if a father or brother has had the disease. If any of these familial risk factors are evident, women should be especially vigilant with physical self-exams and regular visible examination.

Women with a family history of breast cancer may consider having genetic testing for mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, which is the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer. Some women who discover the presence of one of these genes opt for prophylactic mastectomies to eliminate the possibility of cancer.

While National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is the perfect time for take proactive steps toward prevention, breast health should be on a woman's mind every month of the year, says Dr. Zevon. Combined with regular mammograms and self-exams, diet, exercise, and genetic awareness improve a woman's odds against breast cancer. By making breast health a priority year-round, women can reduce their chances of developing breast cancer.