Breast Cancer and Women Over 40: What's Your Risk Right Now?

Patient Expert

We've all heard that 1 in 8 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life. But that doesn't mean your risk of breast cancer right now is 1 in 8. Understand what your risk actually is, from middle age onward; and discover how you can lower it.

If you're 40-49 –

Your risk of breast cancer during this decade of your life is 1 in 68 – still fairly low, compared to what it will be later on. Think of three women's soccer games going on simultaneously. Only one player on those three fields is likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer by the time she's 40.

As you enter this decade, it's important to create a breast-health plan, one that you'll follow the rest of your life. While the USPSTF (the government agency responsible for making preventive health care recommendations) doesn't advise beginning mammograms until age 50, many respected organizations – including the American Cancer Society – suggest beginning screening at age 40.

Should you get a mammogram now? Should you wait? It's time to discuss your personal risk with your doctor. If your breast cancer risk is higher than normal (and your doctor will help you determine that), then you should seriously consider beginning mammograms in your 40s. If you're at no known risk for breast cancer, you might want to wait until age 50. It's your choice – do what YOU feel makes sense, both physically and emotionally.

Read more: Maintaining Healthy Breasts: Your 40s** If you're 50-59 –**

Your risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer during this decade is 1 in 42.

Your 50s are when you'll usually start to hear about friends with breast cancer. While still below the median age of diagnosis, breast cancer is definitely more likely now than it's been in the past.

What can you do to help prevent it? Watch your weight Women who gain weight (20 pounds or more) after menopause are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than their sisters who maintain a healthy weight.

In addition, if you've been taking hormone replacement therapy for menopausal side effects, try to wean yourself off it as soon as possible. The longer you stay on HRT, and the higher the dose, the greater your breast cancer risk.

And, while cancer screening can't prevent cancer, it can definitely raise your likelihood of surviving it. Discuss with your doctor how often to have a mammogram; the USPSTF recommends every other year, but women at increased risk – or those who simply worry about cancer – might like the peace of mind a yearly mammogram offers.

Read more: Breast Health in Your 50s** If you're 60-69 –**

Your risk of breast cancer is now 1 in 28, just about the highest it'll be. The median age for a breast cancer diagnosis is 61; so you're in the heart of "cancer territory" as you enter your 60s.

Knowing that your risk is now high (relatively speaking), what's your response?

Even now, there are things you can do to lower that risk. Maintain a healthy weight; don't smoke, and keep alcohol consumption to a minimum. If you're still on HRT - please try to get off it.  After the first couple of years, every year you continue to take it increases your breast cancer risk.

Also, though this won't reduce your cancer risk, be alert to breast changes. Unlike younger women, any breast lump you feel isn't likely to be hormonal in nature; you've long since left those hormones behind. If you feel a new lump – don't wait, get it checked.

Read more: Breast Health in Your 60s** If you're 70 or older –**

One in 26 – that's your breast cancer risk from age 70-79. Starting at age 80, your risk actually starts to diminish – so at least you have that to look forward to! Still, a full 20 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses come at age 75 or older.

What's the most effective way to lower breast cancer risk at this age? Stay active! Exercise helps you maintain a healthy weight; and studies show that simply the act of exercise itself, regardless of its effect on weight, lowers breast cancer risk.

And what about those annual mammograms? A recent study of women ages 66 to 89 reveals that women in that age range can safely go to an every-other-year mammogram schedule without raising their risk of dying from breast cancer.

In fact, many older women simply stop having mammograms – and for good reason. Chances are that most of the slow-growing breast cancers detected by mammography won't prove fatal; there'll be some other cause of death first. So, if you're heading into your final years and want to avoid the hassle and expense and worry of a mammogram, go ahead; you're not being irresponsible.

Read more: Breast Health for Women Over 70** See more helpful articles:**

Breast Cancer and Women UNDER 40: What's Your Risk Right Now?

How to Lower Your Risk of Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Screening By Age

National Cancer Institute's Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool

Skip Your Annual Mammogram? For Older Women, It's an Option

Top 10 Breast Cancer Risk Factors

Risks and Benefits: Understanding the Statistics That Affect You

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.