With so many confusing and alarming reports about breast cancer, it’s tough to ﬁgure out what your risk really is. We asked top experts to help explain the latest facts behind the headlines – and discovered some very reassuring news.
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Having the newest information about breast cancer is empowering.
Self-exams aren’t worth doing.
BREAK IT DOWN: Using two ﬁngers and moving in a circular pattern to check your breasts for lumps and other changes once a month is no longer officially recommended. “Self-exams weren’t getting patients diagnosed any earlier, which is key to reducing breast cancer mortality,” says Dr Mariana Chavez Mac Gregor, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Instead, the focus has shifted to breast health awareness, she says. “You should know what’s normal for you – the symmetry of your breasts, what the skin and nipples look like, and what they feel like,” Dr Mac Gregor says. “If you know that, you’ll know if there’s something abnormal, like lesions or lumps.”
You need to rethink your diet.
BREAK IT DOWN: The popularity of high-protein, highfat plans has a lot of women worried about the health ramiﬁcations. There’s also a lot of conﬂicting information about soya’s possible link to breast cancer. Dr Mac Gregor’s advice? Don’t obsess about certain foods. “What we recommend is a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise,” she says.” The exact amount of protein, dairy or soya doesn’t matter as much as moderation.” And stay at a healthy weight. “Speciﬁc diets aren’t associated with breast cancer,” Dr Mac Gregor adds, “but obesity is.”
Antiperspirants are risky.
BREAK IT DOWN: Natural deodorants are having a moment right now, and while there’s certainly no harm in ditching your old brand in favour of something without aluminum (the active ingredient in antiperspirants), doing so won’t reduce your odds of developing breast cancer. “There’s no evidence that deodorant or antiperspirant causes the disease,” Dr Mac Gregor says.
Alcohol seriously ups your odds.
BREAK IT DOWN: Although your breast cancer risk increases by 4 per cent from light drinking (up to one drink a day), 23 per cent from moderate drinking (two to four a day) and 61 per cent from heavy drinking (ﬁve or more a day), those are relative-risk numbers, says Dr Erika Hamilton, director of the breast and gynaecological cancer research programme at Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville. On average, women have a 10 per cent risk of getting breast cancer in their lifetime; a 4 per cent increase in relative risk means the total risk is 10.4 per cent – a pretty tiny change, until you hit the heavy category. Stick to two drinks or fewer a day to keep your odds low.
The best treatment for breast cancer is chemotherapy.
BREAK IT DOWN: More women with breast cancer can skip this once-standard treatment, according to a new study. “Until now, we’ve known that women with hormonally driven breast cancer who are classiﬁed as low-risk didn’t need chemotherapy, while women who were high-risk did. We weren’t sure about the intermediates. But a new trial called TAILORx found that most intermediates also got no signiﬁcant beneﬁt from chemotherapy,” Dr Hamilton shares. “The results will likely save 60,000 patients a year from receiving chemo.” That means avoiding many side effects, such as damage to heart and lung cells, hair loss and nausea. It’s a big win for personalised medicine, she says. “We’re constantly developing new therapies, and now we’re getting better at determining who needs exactly which treatments.”
Having dense breasts is a big problem.
BREAK IT DOWN: If you have dense breasts, meaning they have more ﬁbrous and glandular tissue and less fatty tissue, you won’t know it until you get a mammogram. If your physician doesn’t broach the subject when discussing the results with you at your next appointment, just ask. It’s important knowledge to have because research suggests that women with dense breasts are up to six times more at risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. The disease is also harder to spot in dense breast tissue, says Dr Elizabeth Morris, a Breast Cancer Research Foundation investigator and the chief of the Breast Imaging Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York . That’s why some women get a second screening, like a breast ultrasound or an MRI. “But not all women with dense breasts need additional tests – only those with extremely dense breasts or certain patterns of density,” Dr Morris says. Bottom line: It’s an individual decision your doctor will help you make.