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A Lifetime of Healthy Breasts

A guide to keeping your breasts healthy now and in the years to come.
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Low Breast Cancer Risk

Breast cancer is uncommon; women aged 30-39 have a risk of only one in 229 of being diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Unless there's a strong family history of breast cancer, women in their 30s don't need mammogram screening. In fact, younger women's denser breast tissue makes it harder to detect breast cancers on mammograms.

However, regular manual breast exams by your doctor are crucial to check for lumps, skin dimpling, and other signs of breast cancer, according to experts.

Furthermore, Downey urges women in their 30s to report lasting breast changes or pain to their doctors. "Many of these things that cause breast pain in young women are going to turn out to be benign, but there are breast cancers that happen in young women," Downey says. "My advice is, just because you're young and you're less likely to have a cancer doesn't mean that you shouldn't get it looked at."

What about doing monthly breast self-exams at home? The American Cancer Society has declared them optional, citing a lack of evidence that they reduce breast cancer deaths. But each doctor who spoke to WebMD emphasized that women should still perform breast self-exams monthly -- at the very least -- to familiarize themselves with their breasts so that they can report changes to their doctors.

"It's easy enough ... and there are certainly women out there who find their breast cancers that way," Downey says. "I encourage all women to do breast self-exams and get comfortable with what their breasts feel like."

If you are premenopausal, the ideal time to check your breasts is 5 to10 days after the beginning of your period, Steiner says, before premenstrual lumpiness appears. "That's when you have the least hormonal effect and you're going to have the most accurate exam," she says.

Your Breasts in Your 40s

During the 40s, breast shape continues to change for most women. "As we get older, sort of in a progressive way -- but certainly after menopause -- the breast has less glandular tissue but more fat," Downey says, leading to more sagging.

The Revlon/UCLA Breast Center reports that cysts are the most common type of breast lump seen in women during their 40s, although cysts can develop at other ages as well. These fluid-filled sacs aren't cancerous, but they can be painful. Doctors can drain or surgically remove them.

Cellular hanges like atypical ductal hyperplasia may also begin during this decade, Downey says. These abnormal cells in the milk ducts increase a woman's chances of breast cancer.

The numbers show that breast cancer risk rises during this decade; a woman between the ages of 40 and 49 now has a one in 68 chance of being diagnosed. Therefore, mammogram screening enters the picture.

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