Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women all over the world. It has also consistently been among the top five cancers overall, as well as the fifth most common cause of cancer death in women. In 2012, 1.7 million new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed and reported.
This form of cancer is hereditary, however. An individual with one first-degree female relative (such as a sister, mother, or daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer is twice as likely to also be diagnosed with breast cancer. If this individual has two-first degree relatives who have been diagnosed, the risk becomes five times higher than an individual with no such history of breast cancer in the family.
Familial breast cancer poses serious concerns. However, even if a woman does have a family history of breast cancer, she can still reduce her risk of acquiring the disease through these five steps.
- Live Healthy. Once an individual knows that breast cancer runs in the family, her objective is to keep her risk as low as possible. One course of action would be to make changes to her lifestyle. Some of these healthy lifestyle choices include maintaining a healthy weight (as obesity is proven to influence the risk of cancer), exercising regularly, moderating one’s own alcohol consumption, developing a healthy diet, and avoiding or quitting smoking.
- Breastfeed. Research has repeatedly highlighted the benefits of breastfeeding, and one of those benefits is a decrease in the mother’s risk of being diagnosed with premenopausal breast cancer despite her actual family history. Women who breastfeed experience hormonal changes that delay their menstrual cycles. As a result, they are exposed less to estrogen and other hormones that promote breast cancer cell growth. The shedding of breast tissue during breastfeeding may also help remove cells with damaged DNA.
- Undergo Screening. Individuals with family histories of breast cancer are highly advised to consult with their doctors for a screening plan. This includes scheduling mammograms and clinical breast examinations to regularly check for lumps in breast tissue. While most women already undergo screening once a year, those with a hereditary risk need to have their screenings done twice a year instead, as they may develop cancer between annual screenings.
- Receive Drug Treatment. Four hormonal therapy drugs have been proven to reduce the risk of hormone-receptor-positive familial breast cancer in women. Two of them, tamoxifen and raloxifene, are selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) which inhibit the effects of estrogen on breast tissue. The other two, exemestane and anastrozole, are aromatase inhibitors, which are commonly used to treat breast cancer in postmenopausal women. These drugs are not advisable for use by people with osteoporosis, thrombosis, and endometrial cancer, however. Aromatase inhibitors may affect bone density. Meanwhile, SERM increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis and triggers tissue growth in the uterus.
- Avoid Exposure to Carcinogens. Radiation, secondhand smoke, and asbestos count as carcinogens, or substances or asbestos exposures that can increase an individual’s risk of developing cancer. Unintentional exposure might not immediately lead to cancer–some carcinogens have more potential to cause cancer while others only trigger development of the disease after repeated or prolonged exposure.
No medication can completely negate the increased risk stemming from a family history of breast cancer. However, a person whose relatives have been diagnosed with this form of cancer can at least minimize that risk and prevent an additional incident of cancer in the family.
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