Breast Cancer Prevention: What Every Woman Should Know

Think you're clear on who's at risk and what keeps breast cancer away? Maybe not: Turns out a lot of us have misinformation about the disease. These reality checks could save your life.

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Few diseases stir up fear like breast cancer. After all, one in eight women will get it in her lifetime: "We all know someone who's had it," says Barbara Levy, MD, vice president for health policy for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). But just how scared should we be? And do we really know how to protect ourselves?

To find out, Health magazine—with ACOG's help—conducted an exclusive survey of 753 readers and 1,248 OB-GYNs. What we found was startling: Even smart women like you have big misconceptions about this disease. Here's what you think when it comes to breast cancer, what doctors want you to know—and the news that could save your life.

Surprise finding #1: 63% of women think family history is the biggest breast cancer risk factor.
What you should know: The vast majority of women with breast cancer have no family history.

In fact, aside from being female, your age is the biggest risk factor. "As we get older, our tissue gets older, and the risk of developing disease increases," says Susan Boolbol, MD, chief of breast surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. With age, we've also had more lifetime exposure to estrogen, which may boost breast cancer risk. This helps explain why your chance of being diagnosed jumps from 1 in 233 in your 30s to 1 in 29 in your 60s. That said, there are simple ways to help protect yourself.

And while age is a bigger risk factor, having a family history does up your chances of developing the disease, so be proactive. Tell your doctor if a family member has had breast cancer (or even ovarian, prostate, or pancreatic cancers), so you can consider getting screened earlier, and discuss whether genetic testing or preventive medication might be good ideas for you.

Surprise finding #2: 40% of women say breast cancer is the cancer they worry about most.
What you should know: Breast cancer is very treatable when caught early.

Though breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, lung cancer actually kills the most women every year. We have a 1 in 20 lifetime risk of dying from lung cancer, and a 1 in 36 lifetime risk of dying from breast cancer. That's because, compared with ยป lung and other hard-to-treat cancers (such as ovarian), breast cancer tends to be caught at earlier, more treatable stages, thanks to screenings like mammograms (which is why it's so important to get one every year, starting at age 40).

Why is breast cancer so feared then? It's the disease we hear about the most through media coverage and fundraising efforts.

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By Hallie Levine Sklar
Last Updated: September 17, 2012

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