Nicole Seagriff was a preventative medicine resident when she realized the importance of family history in assessing breast cancer risk. “Breast cancer has been a part of my life since before I was born,” she says. “My grandmother passed away from breast cancer when my mom was four years old, and my mom battled it at age 42. My mom’s sister also got diagnosed in her early 40s and passed away before her 50 birthday,” Seagriff says.
After learning how crucial early screenings are for people with a family history of the disease, Seagriff decided to get a genetic test. That’s when she found out she was BRCA2 positive — meaning she had a gene mutation, which increases the risk for breast, ovarian, pancreatic, skin and prostate cancers. Not long after an MRI scan of her breasts, Seagriff, who was just 27 years old at the time, received a breast cancer diagnosis.
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Ultimately, Seagriff decided to have a mastectomy — surgery to remove all breast tissue — to treat her cancer, after learning she had an 89 percent chance of relapse if she didn’t opt for the surgery. Now, thanks to genetic screening and an early diagnosis, Seagriff is celebrating her fifth year cancer-free. And she’s running the New York City Marathon in November to raise money for The Pink Agenda, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising money for breast cancer research and spreading awareness about the disease to young professionals.
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Let Seagriff’s story inspire you to stay proactive about your health. “The way I think about having a mutation in my BRCA gene is that if my body can’t protect itself, I need to do whatever I can to protect it,” she says. Know your family history and talk to your doctor about genetic testing. Also, take a few preventative steps to help decrease your risk. To set you in the right direction, we asked experts to share their best stay-healthy tips for every age group.
While the risk of breast cancer is lowest at this decade (only about four percent of people in their 20s receive a cancer diagnosis), it’s not a time to skimp on exercise and a healthy diet. Marc Hurlbert, PhD, chief mission officer at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, says, “Starting with good habits in your 20s is a great way to create a platform for health throughout your lifetime.”
That means striking a balance between regular workouts and Netflix nights, as well as happy hours and meal prep. (Need some workout or meal ideas? Check out this 20-minute bodyweight workout, plus three-ingredient recipes.) “Women in their 20s should start or continue a regular exercise routine, stay at a healthy weight, quit smoking and avoid alcohol,” he says. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that women limit their daily alcoholic intake to two drinks.
In addition to maintaining positive habits, you should also see your primary care physician and gynecologist at least once a year. Although research has shown no clear benefit to having physical breast exams and breast self-exams, the American Cancer Society (ACS) says women should still be mindful of how their breasts look and feel. And see a doctor right away if anything changes.
Deborah Lindner, MD, chief medical officer of Bright Pink, a non-profit organization that focuses on the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women, agrees women should practice breast health awareness. “Getting to know what’s normal for your breasts, like how they look, feel, the color and size, will help you determine when something isn’t normal,” says Lindner. Some common breast cancer symptoms include warmth or redness, nipple discharge, swelling, scaly rashes, soreness, change in size or shape, bumps or a lump, Lindner adds. Some studies also link hormonal birth control to an increased breast cancer risk, Hurlbert says. So remember to chat with your doctor before you start taking it, especially if breast cancer runs in your family.
A woman’s risk of breast cancer increases to about half a percent when they hit their 30s, according to the National Cancer Institute. And that number can go up after having a kid. “All women have a short-term increase in breast cancer risk after childbirth, which declines after about 10 years,” says Margaret Flowers, PhD, director of scientific communications and grants at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
Flowers says women who have children in their 30s or later have a higher risk of breast cancer than those who have never given birth. Studies relate a woman’s risk for breast cancer to her exposure to hormones produced by the ovaries. Pregnancy after age 30 exposes women to these hormones for longer periods of time and as a result, increases breast cancer risk. The good news: Breastfeeding helps reduce your risk postpartum.
Like women in their 20s, staying on top of physical activity and managing stress should remain on the priority list for 30-somethings. To be more specific, Hulbert says, “Women in their 30s should maintain an exercise routine that includes 150 minutes each week of cardiovascular exercise as well as weight training.” If you’re feeling anxious, try these beginner meditation techniques, and start moving more with 10 minutes of HIIT for cardio and these strength exercises.
Your 30s are also a good time to evaluate your family history. “Your father’s health history is just as important as your mother’s,” says Lindner. Learn how your family history affects your personal risk by visiting AssessYourRisk.org and creating a worksheet on your relatives’ health.
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Age is the strongest risk factor for breast cancer, so at this decade, it’s time to consider a screening. The ACS recommends that starting at 45, women should get annual mammograms — an x-ray that detects changes in breast tissue. “Schedule your mammogram when your breasts aren’t tender or swollen to reduce discomfort. Also, try to avoid the week just before your period,” Flowers says. On the day of your mammogram, avoid wearing deodorant or antiperspirant, as it can show up as white spots on the x-ray.
Also, physical activity and a clean diet still hold a top spot for disease prevention in your 40s. As estrogen and progesterone levels start to taper in this decade, women become more prone to weight gain. “It’s especially important to continue physical activity, maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid weight gain as you approach menopause,” Hurlbert says. To keep metabolism in check, try a low-impact strength workout like barre, or go swimming or cycling for an aerobic boost.
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Remember, if you do test positive for a breast cancer genetic mutation, it doesn’t mean you have cancer or will definitely get cancer. “Understanding that you have this mutation means that you now have powerful knowledge about your health,” Lindner says. And Seagriff agrees: “We can’t change our DNA. But we can support a healthy lifestyle to prevent damage to our genes.”
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