Breast cancer is the top cancer among women: In 2015, it killed over half a million people around the world, according to the World Health Organization. Emmy-winning actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus just recently announced she was diagnosed with the disease. Yet in Avon’s survey of 19,000 women, only 42 percent felt confident they would be able to recognize changes to their breasts that could indicate breast cancer, though 72 percent of those same respondents said they look for changes.

Breast cancer rates dropped in the early 2000s with the decrease of menopausal hormone therapy, but they have remained somewhat constant since then. Still, because simple factors like age can drastically increase risk, it’s increasingly important women understand how to look for early signs of breast cancer — WHO says early detection is key for improving breast cancer outcomes and survival. Though prevention isn’t always possible, there are some simple ways to be vigilant. Here are a few important ways to maintain awareness and guard your health when it comes to breast cancer.

Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbons

Know the risk factors

According to the CDC, studies show breast cancer risk is due to a number of factors, often a combination. Simply being aware of these risk factors in your own life can promote vigilance in your self-exams so you can catch any sign of breast cancer early on. Keep in mind that some women get breast cancer with none of these risk factors, and having a risk factor doesn’t mean you will ever get breast cancer. Here are a few of the most common risk factors, according to the CDC.

  • Age: Most breast cancer cases are diagnosed after age 50.
  • Genetic mutations: Inherited changes to genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2 may lead to higher risk for both breast and ovarian cancer.
  • Family or personal history of breast cancer: Having a first-degree family member (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer doubles your risk.
  • Hormone exposure: Having an early menstrual period (women who got their first period before age 12 have been exposed to hormones for longer), taking oral contraceptives, or using combination replacement therapy have all been known to increase risk.
  • Late or no pregnancy: Having a first pregnancy after age 30 or never having a full-term pregnancy can increase risk.
  • Lifestyle: Not being physically active, drinking alcohol, or being overweight can all contribute to breast cancer risk.

Know what to look for

Signs of breast cancer can be more nuanced than feeling a lump in your breast, and not all warning signs are the same in every breast cancer case. But it’s always important to know what to look for. Here are some of the most common signs of breast cancer — if you think you may have any of them, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

  • New lump, hardening, or thickening in the breast or armpit area
  • Warmth or swelling in the breast
  • Irritation, “puckering,” or “dimpling” of breast skin
  • Redness or flaky skin in breast area
  • Pain in nipple area or pulling in of nipple
  • Nipple discharge (other than breastmilk), which can include blood, and often occurs without squeezing the nipple
  • ANY changes in the shape or size of breast
  • Recurring pain in any area of your breast

While many of the above symptoms can be warning signs of breast cancer, often, they can indicate benign conditions of the breast. Still, make sure you discuss any concerns with your doctor.

Get mammograms

Mammograms are x-ray screenings that show signs of breast cancer when there may be no other indicators. Most women get mammograms at or after age 40, but if you have any of the above risk factors, talk to your doctor about early screenings. According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, due to common use of mammography screenings, most breast cancer cases in the US are diagnosed early, which plays a huge part in survival. In other countries, where breast cancer screenings are less common, mortality is much higher.

Whether or not you have any risk factors or blatant warning signs of breast cancer, it’s always helpful to be aware of what to look for. And while diseases like breast cancer, unfortunately, can’t always be prevented, you can take care of your body, reduce your risk factors, and catch any concerns early on. Again, if you have questions or concerns about your risk factors or any changes in your breasts, make sure you discuss them with your physician.

How are you taking a preventative approach to your health? Let us know @BritandCo.

(Photo via Getty)