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Are You Turning Into Your Mom?

How to cut your odds of breast cancer, osteoporosis, depression, and immune diseases -- even if your mom had them.

Breast Cancer continued...

“The more relatives you have who’ve had breast cancer, the higher your risk becomes,” Chung says. “And women who inherit certain genetic mutations, such as those on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, may have a lifetime risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer of anywhere from 50% to 85%. If you inherit that mutation from your mother, there is a very strong chance that you will go on to develop breast cancer, too.”

You can also inherit a genetic predisposition to breast cancer from your father’s side of the family. “Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, my father’s mother was the one who had breast cancer, so I don’t need to worry,’” Hahn says. “No. It can run right through your dad’s side as well.”

Women who test positive for BRCA mutations usually monitor their breast health very closely, with advanced screening tools like breast MRI, and more and more are choosing prophylactic surgery to remove their breasts and/or ovaries. Doing this can cut their risk of developing cancer to below that of an average woman.

But what if you don’t have a known genetic mutation, just a mom or an aunt or a few female relatives who’ve had breast cancer? Is there anything you can do to minimize your own risk when you’re not even sure if genes are involved?

Yes. “Many factors can dial your risk up or down," Chung says. "There are things you can do.”

For example:

  • Alcohol. Moderate alcohol intake -- one glass of wine or beer or less, on average, per day -- does not raise your risk of breast cancer. But regularly drinking two or three alcoholic beverages a day does increase that risk --so keep your alcohol intake moderate, at most.
  • Hormone replacement therapy. It’s known that hormone replacement therapy after menopause elevates the risk of breast cancer, so women with a family history of the disease might want to be especially cautious about taking HRT.
  • Pregnancy. Having your first baby before age 30 may cut your breast cancer risk, as does breastfeeding. The longer you breastfeed, the greater the protection. “You’re not necessarily going to plan your life around these factors, but, for example, since breastfeeding is very healthy anyway, this can be an added incentive to nurse and nurse longer,” Chung says.
  • Weight. Maintaining a healthy body weight helps to lower your risk of many cancers, including breast cancer.

You can combine these lifestyle choices with being more vigilant about screening.

“We’re more successful at curing breast cancer the earlier we catch it, so if you have a strong family history, you’re the type of person who should definitely get a mammogram starting at a younger age than usual," Chung says. "Depending on how strongly the disease runs in your family, you might also consider regular breast MRIs.”

A combination of lifestyle choices and enhanced vigilance can help women do their best to ward off almost any disease they might worry about inheriting from their mothers, Chung says.

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