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Women's Health

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A Lifetime of Healthy Breasts

A guide to keeping your breasts healthy now and in the years to come.

Low Breast Cancer Risk continued...

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.

The medical community has debated the benefits of mammography for women in their 40s, in part because false positives can lead to unnecessary anxiety and procedures.

The National Cancer Institute recommends getting a first mammogram at age 40 and then one subsequently every one to two years afterward. However, women with a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer should ask their doctors about starting mammogram screening before 40.

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