Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Being a woman automatically puts you at risk for developing breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute states that 1 in 8 American women are estimated to develop breast cancer during their lifetimes. Although there is no way to prevent breast cancer completely, you can take steps to reduce your risks.
A risk factor is anything that increases your likelihood of developing cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors receive a diagnosis. Certain risk factors can be controlled while others cannot.
Breast Cancer Risk Factors That Are in Your Control
Certain lifestyle choices can increase your breast cancer risk. This means they involve personal behaviors and the choices you make. The good news is that you can reduce your risk by making some lifestyle adjustments.
- Alcohol consumption. How much alcohol you drink can increase the risk of developing breast cancer. To reduce your risk, the American Cancer Society recommends no more than 1 drink a day for women (2 a day for men).
- Being overweight. Being overweight or obese after menopause increases your breast cancer risks. Excess body fat is associated with increased blood insulin levels and increased estrogen levels in women, both of which have been associated with breast cancer. If you need or would like to lose weight, talk to your doctor about the best ways to do so.
- Taking hormones, including birth control pills - Certain forms of birth control (including oral contraceptives) have been linked to a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer. To reduce this risk, talk to your doctor about other forms of non-hormonal contraception (such as IUD or condoms).
For women who are in menopause, and are taking estrogen or progesterone hormone replacement therapy for more than 5 years, there is a slight increase of developing breast cancer. The benefit of hormone therapy may outweigh the risk of developing breast cancer. Always talk to your doctor before discontinuing any hormone therapies.
- Timing and frequency of pregnancy. For some, this is completely out of your control at this point in your life. For those who are still planning a family, you may consider having your first child before age 30. According to the American Cancer Society, women who have a baby before 30 and women with multiple children have a slightly lower risk of breast cancer.
- Breastfeeding. Again, this may not be within your control at this point in your life. But according to the National Cancer Institute, breastfeeding your baby for at least a year can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer, regardless of what age you have the child.
Breast Cancer Risk Factors You Cannot Control
Sometimes, risk factors are based on your genes, meaning you were born with them (inherited).
Other than being a woman, genetic risk factors for breast cancer include:
- Age. Women ages 55 and older have the highest risk of developing invasive breast cancer.
- Race and ethnicity. White women are more likely to develop breast cancer than black women. However, among women younger than 45 years of age, black women are more susceptible to developing the disease than white women. Women of Ashkenazi or Eastern European Jewish heritage also have an increased risk of breast cancer because they may be more likely to have inherited a BRCA gene mutation.
- Family history of breast cancer or known inherited gene mutations. Not all breast cancer is hereditary. In fact only X% or so is related to something passed done through the family.
If any women in your immediate family (grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, daughter, or cousin) have been diagnosed with breast cancer you may consider learning more about genetic testing that can be done to determine if their breast cancer was caused by a gene mutation that you may have inherited. Schedule an appointment with our genetic counselor to learn more about whether genetic testing is right for you and your family.
- Dense breast tissue. This makes it more difficult to detect cancer on a mammogram.
- Reproductive history. Menstruation before ages 11 or 12 or menopause after age 55 put women at a somewhat higher risk of breast cancer. This is because breast cells have been exposed to estrogen and progesterone for a longer time.
Remember, having one or more of these risk factors does not guarantee that you will develop breast cancer. However, knowing what those potential risks are is beneficial information to have. Early detection is key, so take charge of your health by making sure to have regular breast cancer screenings. If you are at high risk, talk to your doctor about starting your breast cancer screenings a bit earlier than the standard recommendation. Breast cancer has a much higher rate of complete remission when it’s caught early!
If you feel you may have a higher risk for breast cancer due to lifestyle, consider discussing lifestyle choices with your primary care doctor or your gynecologist.