Healthy Breasts at 40, 50, and 60

Nervous about breast cancer? Make each decade worry-free with our comprehensive guide to breast health.

By Bari Nan Cohen and Cathy Garrard

Breast Health in Your 60s

There’s no getting around it: The number-one risk factor for breast cancer is age. In the U.S. in 2007, 16,150 cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in women younger than 45 and 162,330 cases in those older than 55. Age 61 is the statistical mean for breast cancer diagnosis, meaning that’s when you’re most likely to be diagnosed. Some good news: Tumors grow slower in this decade; it takes an average of 2.1 years for a tumor in a woman 60 to 69 to double in size.

Start Losing Weight

"Lots of women in their 60s start giving up on taking care of themselves. If they haven’t done a great job of it in their 50s, they think that at this point it’s too late to change and do any good," Collins says. "But the research shows the opposite: It’s never too late. The Nurses’ Health Study and another one focusing on a group of similar-aged women by the National Institutes of Health and AARP all say that if you have been overweight and you lose the weight, your risk factors for breast cancer go back down, as though you’d never had the extra pounds."

Keep Seeing Your Ob-Gyn

Many women in this age group stop going to the gynecologist annually. Minkin theorizes that money may be the reason: The ACS doesn’t recommend yearly Pap smears (beginning at age 30, any woman whose tests are normal three times in a row needs one only every two to three years), so Medicare won’t cover them. But older women do need yearly ob-gyn exams, Minkin says — and even having had a hysterectomy doesn’t get you off the hook. "You need your breasts and ovaries examined once a year, since cancer rates for both rise with age. If your GP or internist can do it, that’s fine." Yearly mammograms are a must too.

Be Brave About Biopsies

Tumors assessed by biopsies are more likely to be benign in younger women, since this age group is still producing hormones that cause breast tissue to change. "But when you see an abnormality in a 60-year-old, there’s more of a likelihood that it will be a malignancy," Willey says. And, Arun adds, don’t put off scheduling your annual mammogram. If you do receive an abnormal result, schedule a biopsy as soon as possible.

Keeping Breast Implants Healthy

Whether yours are cosmetic or reconstructive, Denver plastic surgeon John A. Grossman, MD, explains how to take care of them.

Remember Implants Have a Shelf Life

No matter if they’re made from silicone or saline (the FDA rescinded its ban on the former last year), the longer you have them, the more likely they are to break. "Implants experience wear and tear, since they bend and flex when you breathe and move," Grossman says. Manufacturers give them a life span of 10 to 20 years, so talk to your plastic surgeon about removal or replacement as that time nears its end.

Keep Doing Self-Exams

Many women whose breasts have been augmented worry that the implants will make it harder for them to detect lumps. The opposite is true. "The implant is placed behind the breast tissue, so everything you need to feel is sitting on top of a soft surface. Implants make BSE easier," Grossman says.

Don’t Fear Mammograms

Grossman says some of his patients worry that the compression required for this essential exam will rupture their implants. But those little sacs aren’t that fragile. "I once decided to perform my own durability test," Grossman says. "I drove my Mercedes SL 500 over a silicone implant and then parked the car on top of it for the day. It suffered no ill effects." Besides, he adds, women have to keep their perspective: Even if an implant were to break, dealing with that is much simpler than dealing with breast cancer — and the stakes are much lower. So definitely keep scheduling mammograms; just be sure to mention your implants to the radiology technician. (Any qualified tech would notice them anyway, but play it safe and spell it out.)

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