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Breast cancer confusion widespread, survey finds

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Courtesy ABC News

More people survive breast cancer, thanks in part to early detection. But a new poll highlights persistent, perhaps even widening holes in women's understanding of their risk for the disease and their knowledge about the screening tests that are right for them.

The poll, conducted for ABC's month-long series on breast cancer, found that 50 percent of women said they'd discussed breast cancer with their doctors, down from 58 percent in 2007. And 46 percent expressed concern about their own risk, down from 61 percent in 2007.

ABC News is going pink for breast cancer awareness. Click here for the latest screening recommendations and a list of signs and symptoms to look out for. Once you know the facts, take our pledge to understand your risk and follow the steps to protect yourself.

One in eight American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. And while the risk increases with age, experts said it starts at birth.

Survey finds challenges in breast cancer awareness

"There are important steps every woman can take throughout her life – well before age 40 – to help lower her lifetime risk," said Dr. Marisa Weiss, founder of BreastCancer.org.

Maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising regularly can reduce your risk of breast cancer. But only 4 percent of women polled said they dieted to protect themselves against breast cancer, and only 2 percent said they exercised.

When it comes to breast cancer screening, the poll suggests confusion is rampant, with 86 percent of women saying the tests -- mammograms -- should start at age 30 or 40, and 65 percent saying they should be done annually – both departures from the United States Preventive Services Task Force's recommendation to screen every two years starting at age 50.

Read about the risk factors for breast cancer and steps that you can take now to protect yourself.

But the confusion may stem from conflicting recommendations. Both BreastCancer.org and the American Cancer Society recommend annual mammograms for all women 40 and older, regardless of their risk factors. And the results of a recent study suggest that earlier mammograms could save lives.

Read about the study and the mammogram debate.

Seven out of eight women age 40 and older said they had a mammogram in the past two years, according to the poll. But among those women who said they hadn't, the most commonly cited reason was that they didn't believe they needed a mammogram.

"The 'street fight' about mammography makes people think that breast cancer is no longer a dangerous disease and that mammography is optional for all," BreastCancer.org's Weiss said of the mammogram debate. "And people equate the start of mammography with the start of breast cancer risk. So it's no surprise that if some doctors say get your mammogram later, people will think risk starts even later."

The poll also found that 52 percent of women would want to be tested for gene mutations that raise their breast cancer risk, and 28 percent of women would have preventive mastectomies to reduce their risk.

Read about Angelina Jolie's decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy.

Information is our best weapon against breast cancer, so Go Pink with us. Throughout the month, we'll bring you the information you need to protect yourself, along with inspiring stories from breast cancer survivors: There are 2.8 million in the U.S. alone. Armed with the facts, you can take our pledge to know your risk and get the screening tests appropriate for you.

Read on ABC News

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