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Breast cancer. Two words that have the power to instill fear in a woman. For the most part, breast cancer is not something we typically think about as women in our 20s and 30s, but once we hit the 40-year-old mark and mammograms become an annual event, the reality that breast cancer could actually be a part of our future starts to make the disease more real to us. So, what exactly puts a woman at risk for developing breast cancer at some point in her life? Are there certain things we can do to protect ourselves from ever finding a lump in our breasts? And what are some of the early warning signs that we can look for as we do our own monthly personal breast examination?

Yes, there are certain risk factors associated with breast cancer that can place women in a higher risk category. Unfortunately most of the risk factors tied to breast cancer are ones that cannot be controlled; however, they are just as important to consider. Remember, early detection saves lives, so when you arm yourself with the information you need to identify any markers that may indicate trouble, you will walk into your gynecologist’s office prepared to discuss your findings. Do not diagnose yourself. As women, we can take a cold to cancer in no time flat, but if we keep in mind that the breast is made up of soft, dense tissue, and remember that not every lump we find is cancer, we will keep our wits about us and handle the situation intelligently rather than based on what if scenarios and hysteria.

Women who have had a personal history of breast cancer in one breast are at an increased risk of developing another episode of breast cancer. The malignancy can return to the same breast, the opposite breast, or in other parts of the body such as the lungs, liver, bones and brain.

The risk of developing breast cancer increases if you have a mom, sister or close relative who has a history of breast cancer, especially if the diagnosis was made prior to the age of 50. Breast cancer typically strikes Caucasian women more often than African-American, Hispanic or Asian women; however, African-American women tend to develop breast cancer at an earlier age.

Women who have been exposed to large doses of radiation therapy at a young age have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Clinical studies reveal that the younger the woman was when she received the radiation treatment, the higher her risk will be of developing breast cancer at some point in her adult life.

Women who have children later in life, or who never have a baby, are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer than a woman who had her children at a younger age. Women who do not breastfeed their children are also at a higher risk of developing breast cancer as opposed to those who nurse their babies. Not only is nursing good for the newborn but it has the power to potentially protect a mother’s breasts from developing malignancies. The longer you continue to nurse your baby, the lower your risk of developing breast cancer becomes.

It has been noted that certain hormones may be responsible for the development of certain types of breast cancer. The use of hormone replacement therapy after menopause for more than four years can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. This increased risk may occur with the current use of hormones and generally returns to normal after therapy has ended.

A young girl who begins her period before the age of 12 and who begins menopause after the age of 55 is also at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. The years in which you are menstruating are known as your high estrogen years. Doctors believe that the longer the period of high estrogen the higher the risk of developing breast cancer.

Excess weight and excessive alcohol use can potentially lead to higher levels of estrogen, especially after menopause when estrogen levels are low, can also put a woman at risk for developing breast cancer.

In many cases, doctors cannot explain why one woman develops breast cancer and another does not. Some women have absolutely no risk factors, yet develop breast cancer at some point in their adult lives.

As mentioned above, early detection can save your life. Eating right, maintaining a healthy weight, getting a good night’s rest, conducting monthly self-breast examinations and scheduling annual mammograms are just a few of the the ways in which you can protect yourself from ever developing breast cancer. If you happen to notice a lump, bump or thickening of the breast, contact your physician for a conclusive diagnosis.

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