1. Educate yourself and others Breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women after nonmelanoma skin cancer, striking one in eight in the U.S. Most have no risk factors besides being female and getting older: Ninety-five percent of new cases from 1998 to 2002 were in women over 40. For reasons that are still unclear, Caucasian women are most likely to develop the cancer, but African-American women are more likely to die from it. Contrary to popular belief, having large breasts, wearing underwire bras, or using antiperspirant, hair coloring, or hair-relaxing products don't seem to affect your risk; doctors are striving to better determine what genetic and lifestyle factors do.
2. Learn your family's medical history. Some 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are inherited, often through abnormalities in the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2, which are strongly linked to ovarian cancer as well. If you have a first-degree relative -- mother, sister, or daughter -- with either of these diseases, you're at a high risk for breast cancer.
3. Master the self-exam. By age 20, you should be doing a monthly breast self-exam to feel for lumps and other irregularities (for instructions, go to http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/exam).
4. Know when to see your doctor. Even a subtle change in your breasts -- including breast pain and, particularly, any skin change such as dimpling or puckering -- calls for a visit to your physician, says Eric Winer, MD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. And because your doctor might detect a lump you've missed, experts advise having him or her examine your breasts once every three years in your 20s and 30s and once a year after age 40 -- which is also when you should start getting an annual mammogram.
5. Cut back on cocktails. The more a woman drinks, the greater her risk for developing breast cancer. Yet studies show that moderate alcohol use can help protect against heart disease and other conditions. What to do? According to the American Cancer Society, the key is to make sure your consumption averages out to less than one drink a day (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1 1/2 ounces of liquor all count as one serving).
6. Get serious about exercise. Research shows that working out boosts breast health. One reason: Extra weight can make the body produce excess estrogen, which may be why obesity is associated with breast cancer. This connection is especially strong after menopause . Researchers at the University of Southern California found that women who kept up a regimen of more than five hours per week of strenuous cardio (such as running or lap-swimming) from high school on -- or about 45 minutes a day -- had a 20 percent lower risk of invasive breast cancer than those who did 30 minutes or less per week.
7. Eat a balanced diet. Aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Besides keeping your weight in check -- one of the best defenses against breast cancer -- some of these foods have been linked in studies to lower breast cancer incidence. Fill your plate with a variety of colors like fruits' and veggies' with cancer-fighting components -- called phytochemicals. Other smart moves: Consuming more salmon and fortified milk (sources of vitamin D, which may boost your defenses), as well as more healthy fats (like olive oil) and lean proteins (think chicken, fish, and beans).
8. Breastfeed if you can. Given its well-documented benefits for your baby, including protection from allergies and infections, you hardly need another reason to nurse. But breastfeeding, especially for one and a half to two years, may also help protect you against breast cancer, likely because it reduces your number of menstrual cycles, which is linked to lower risk.
9. Reduce your exposure to environmental hazards when possible. A recent review of studies identified 216 chemicals that cause breast tumors in animals. Of particular concern: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which can contaminate fish, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), found in smoke and soot. Experts caution that more research is needed. Still, it's a good idea to avoid PCB-contaminated fish (find local fish advisories at epa.gov
10. Be a champion for change. More money is needed to help underprivileged women get checked and treated for breast cancer and to help researchers better understand the disease. Two ways to make a difference: Contact your elected officials to request their support for the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP), which gives women access to free screenings (go to www.komen.org for information), and the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act, which would increase funding for studies on the environmental causes of breast cancer (learn more at www.stopbreastcancer.org).