What lifestyle changes can I make to prevent breast cancer?

Being overweight increases your risk of breast cancer, particularly if the weight gain occurs after menopause. Drinking alcohol increases your risk; if you drink, limit yourself to no more than one drink a day. Activity that includes aerobic exercise and strength training helps control weight and improve immunity. Studies have indicated breast-feeding and, on the other end of the spectrum, discontinuing hormone therapy may both offer protection from breast cancer.

Are women more likely to develop breast cancer from using birth control pills?

There is no evidence that using oral contraceptives increases your risk. Earlier studies showed a slight risk increase; however, contraceptives used at that time were higher in estrogen doses.

Are women with fibrocystic breasts more likely to get breast cancer?

There is no link to an increase in breast cancer for women who have fibrocystic breasts. Incidentally, more than one-half of women have fibrocystic breasts at some point. The term refers to breasts that have tissue that feels thicker, may have lumps that fluctuate in size, changes in both breasts, and monthly increase in breast pain or discomfort close to menstruation.

Should women do breast self-exams regularly?

Breast cancer is most successfully treated when caught in the early stages. If you should notice a lump, skin discoloration or changes, discharge from a nipple, or experience ongoing breast pain, call your primary care doctor immediately. Four out of five biopsied breast lumps are ruled noncancerous, so don't panic if you find one. But do follow up with your doctor. For many years, women have been encouraged to do monthly breast self-exams. Some organizations and physicians continue to encourage that practice. Based on its research, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded that current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of breast self-exams. Consequently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women no longer be encouraged to do monthly self-exams.

Are annual mammograms necessary?

Mammography is still the best available tool to detect breast cancer in early stages. Most women who get breast cancer have no family history or known risk factors. The American Cancer Society guidelines call for yearly mammogram screenings beginning at age 40 for women at average risk of breast cancer. On the other hand, a 2009 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force report recommended that women have mammograms every two years beginning at age 50. If you are unsure when and how often you should begin having mammograms, talk to your doctor and make the decision together.

Dr. Jessica Carlson is a family medicine physician at Sanford North Clinic. She graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences at Grand Forks and completed her residency in family medicine at the UND Center of Family Medicine in Bismarck.