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The Latest Science On Your Breast Cancer Risk, Explained By Doctors

Photo: B-D-S Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock.com

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.

Self-Exams Aren’t Worth Doing

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 for reducing breast cancer mortality,” says Mariana Chavez Mac Gregor, M.D., 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,” says Dr. Mac Gregor. “If you know that, you’ll know if there’s something abnormal, like lesions or lumps.” (Related: This New Mammogram Technology Will Finally Make Screenings Less Painful)

Alcohol Seriously Ups Your Odds

Although your breast cancer risk increases by 4 percent from light drinking (up to one drink a day), 23 percent from moderate drinking (two to four a day), and 61 percent from heavy drinking (five or more a day), those are relative-risk numbers, says Erika Hamilton, M.D., director of the breast and gynecologic cancer research program at Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville. On average, women have a 10 percent risk of getting breast cancer in their lifetime; a 4 percent increase in relative risk means the total risk is 10.4 percent—a pretty tiny change until you hit the heavy category. Stick to two drinks or fewer a day to keep your odds low.

You Need to Rethink Your Diet

The popularity of high-protein, high-fat plans has a lot of women worried about the health ramifications. There’s also a lot of conflicting info about soy’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 soy doesn’t matter as much as moderation.” And stay at a healthy weight. “Specific diets aren’t associated with breast cancer, but obesity is,” adds Dr. Mac Gregor. (Related: Could Eating Protein Lower Your Risk of Breast Cancer?)

Having Dense Breasts Is a Big Problem

If you have dense breasts, meaning they have more fibrous and glandular tissue and less fatty tissue, you won’t know that until you start having mammograms. Most states are required by law to tell you if you have them, but you can also just ask during your appointment. It’s important knowledge to have because women with dense breasts have a slightly higher risk of developing cancer (about 1.2 times more than other women), and the disease is harder to spot in dense breast tissue, explains Elizabeth Morris, M.D., 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,” says Dr. Morris. Bottom line: It’s an individual decision your doctor will help you make. (Related: Why Every Woman Should Know Her Breast Density)

The Best Treatment for Breast Cancer Is Chemo

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,” says Dr. Hamilton. “The results will likely save 60,000 patients a year from receiving chemo. "That means avoiding many side effects, like damage to heart and lung cells, plus hair loss and nausea. It’s a big win for personalized medicine, says Dr. Hamilton. “We’re constantly developing new therapies, and now we’re getting better at determining who needs exactly which treatments.”

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