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Sanford Health Q&A: Dr. Heather Martin

What can I do to protect myself against breast cancer?

Breast cancer is most successfully treated when caught in the early stages. If you notice a lump, skin discoloration or changes, discharge from a nipple, or experience ongoing breast pain, call your primary care doctor immediately. Four out of five biopsied breast lumps are ruled noncancerous, so don't panic if you find one. But do follow up with your doctor.

For many years, women have been encouraged to do monthly breast self-exams. Some organizations and physicians continue to encourage that practice. Based on its research, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) concluded that current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of breast self-exams. Consequently, USPSTF recommends that women no longer be encouraged to do monthly self-exams.


Mammography is still the best available tool to detect breast cancer in early stages. Most women who get breast cancer have no family history or known risk factors. The American Cancer Society guidelines call for yearly mammogram screenings beginning at age 40 for women at average risk of breast cancer. On the other hand, a 2009 USPSTF report recommends that women have mammograms every two years beginning at age 50. If you are unsure when and how often you should begin having mammograms, talk to your doctor and make the decision together.

Lifestyle changes

Being overweight increases your risk of breast cancer, particularly if the weight gain occurs after menopause. Drinking alcohol increases your risk; if you drink, limit yourself to no more than one drink a day. Activity that includes aerobic exercise and strength training helps control weight and improve immunity. Studies have indicated breast-feeding and discontinuing hormone therapy may both offer protection from breast cancer.