How to Fight Breast Cancer at Any Age

By Chee Gates, Additional reporting by Cary Zahaby

Your age can predict your risk of breast cancer and the severity of the disease, research shows. But every woman has the power to outwit her biological clock. Here, we tell you how.

Related: The Easiest Way to Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk

What to Do in Your 20s

  • Break a sweat

"Regular physical activity reverses the effects of high insulin and estrogen levels -- both of which have been linked to an increase in breast cancer risk," says Douglas Yee, MD, director of the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota. In the Nurses' Health Study II of nearly 65,000 women, those who reported an average of 3.25 hours per week of running or 13 hours per week of walking when they were younger had a 23 percent lower risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer than those who exercised less. Activity from ages 12 to 22 seemed to provide the strongest protection against cancer, the researchers say.

Related: The Other Hidden Benefits of Exercise

  • Have a baby

Hey, it's your life. All we're saying, or rather, all science is saying, is that as far as breast cancer goes, having a baby lowers your risk. Furthermore, it's better to procreate sooner than later. "Women who have children at a younger age are at a decreased risk," says Kala Visvanathan, MD, a medical oncologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. Not only that, breastfeeding lowers your breast cancer risk as well.

Related: The Truth About Your Body After Baby

  • Cut back on the cosmos

Experts have linked alcohol consumption to an increase in breast cancer risk. A study from the British Journal of Cancer shows a 7 percent hike for every drink per day. So try not to let happy hour get too happy.

Related: How Your Weight Affects Your Breast Cancer Risk

What to Do in Your 30s
  • Get calcium and vitamin D

Taking 1,000 milligrams of calcium and 350 IU of vitamin D is associated with a decreased risk for premenopausal breast cancer, according to data from the Women's Health Study, a large trial of more than 30,000 women. To help your body manufacture the D it needs, spend 5 to 10 minutes in the sun a few days a week without SPF protection (depending on the time of year and where you live), and take vitamin D supplements that contain D3, which the body is better able to use.

Related: What's Your Vitamin IQ? Test it Here

  • Eat less red meat

The risk for certain types of breast cancer rises when you eat pork, beef, lamb, and processed meats, like hot dogs and bacon, according to the Nurses' Health Study II. Researchers think that because the meat contains estrogen, eating it increases the amount of estrogen in your body, influencing your risk for cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting red-meat consumption to 18 ounces per week and avoiding all processed meat.

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  • Get grill savvy

If you do eat steak, marinate it overnight in teriyaki or turmeric-garlic sauce to reduce the carcinogenic compounds that are produced when it's grilled, according to research from the University of Hawaii. Other studies show that a shorter grilling time also creates fewer carcinogens.

Related: The Healthy Grilling Guide to Steak, Fish, and Chicken

  • Know where you stand

If you're at least 35 years old, check out the National Cancer Institute's risk-assessment tool at cancer.gov/bcrisktool. After answering a series of questions, you'll find out your probability of getting breast cancer in the next five years and over your lifetime. If your risk is high, Dr. Visvanathan suggests visiting a high-risk breast cancer clinic where you can receive counseling about prevention, screening, and other options, such as genetic testing.

Related: How to Do a Breast Self-Exam

What to Do in Your 40s
  • Make breast screenings a must

Mammograms reduce the number of breast cancer deaths, studies show. "In general, when tumors are detected at one centimeter or less and are surgically removed, there's excellent long-term survival, virtually a cure," says diagnostic radiologist and breast-imaging specialist Robert Lapidus, MD, medical director of the Women's Imaging Centre in Lafayette, Louisiana. Although mammography remains the gold standard for screening large populations, there are other techniques, such as breast MRI and screening breast ultrasound, that may help detect tumors in their earliest stages. The National Cancer Institute recommends that women age 40 and older should have a mammogram every one to two years. Women at higher risk should talk to their doctors about starting earlier or testing more frequently.

Related: Your Guide to Healthy Breasts: What Those Lumps, Bumps and Weird Conditions Really Mean

  • Watch your waistline

If not for vanity, then do it for health. Piling on the pounds ups your chances of getting breast cancer. "In postmenopausal women, since the ovaries no longer make estrogen, the majority of it is produced in the fat tissue," Dr. Visvanathan explains. "That means people with a higher percentage of body fat have more estrogen in their bodies and therefore have a greater breast cancer risk."

Related: The Lose 10 Pounds Workout

  • Defat your diet

Reducing fat intake to 20 percent of calories (the USDA recommends limiting fat to 30 percent) helps regulate insulin and other hormones that may encourage tumor growth, according to the Women's Intervention Nutrition Study, a clinical trial of almost 2,500 women ages 48 to 79 with early-stage breast cancer. Their chance of recurrence was 24 percent lower than that of a control group who ate more fat.

Related: Diet Foods That Pack on the Pounds

  • Limit HRT

The Women's Health Initiative Randomized Controlled Trial, a large study of women age 50 to 79, found that five years of combined hormone replacement therapy (HRT) -- where both estrogen and progesterone are used -- was associated with an increase in the incidence of breast cancer in the recipients, compared with women who took a placebo. Some research has shown that younger women on HRT may not run the same cancer risk. Still, experts suggest using it for the shortest amount of time possible. Talk to your doctor about whether HRT is right for you.

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