The thing that most women find so scary about breast cancer is that a diagnosis appears to be completely random, and the older we become, the stronger the risk of breast cancer. With knowledge comes power, learn the risk factors associated with breast cancer, those you can control and those you can not.
What Are the Risk Factors For Developing Breast Cancer?
The best way your doctor can predict your chances of developing breast cancer is by assessing your risk factors. But even a comprehensive evaluation of your own risk factors doesn’t guarantee you will or won’t get the disease. Every woman is different, most of us have several risk factors, and most of us don’t get breast cancer. Your best course of action is to talk with your doctor about your individual risks and how to manage them.
The dividing line for risk factors is simple. There are risks that are you can’t change, and those that you can.
What Are the Breast Cancer Risk Factors You Cannot Change?
The strongest inherent risk factor is a family history of breast cancer, followed by mutated changes in your BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic makeup. With this history, you’re also at a higher risk for ovarian or cervical cancers.
As we said earlier, getting older is a risk factor. Over 80% of women who are diagnosed are over 45, and the risks increase further as we age. By the time you’re 70, the risk goes up to 26%.
Your period history is also an indicator of your overall risk for breast cancer. There’s a link between estrogen and breast cancer–the longer estrogen is present in your body, the greater your risk. What this means is that if you got your first period early, around 12, or went through menopause after 55, your risk factor is elevated.
If your breasts are dense, there’s more connective tissue than fatty tissue, and you’re more likely to get breast cancer. Researchers aren’t sure if breast density is a factor because mammograms can’t pick up tumors, or if dense breasts are naturally more susceptible. If you have dense breasts (over 50%), your doctor may suggest another imaging method to check for tumors.
The reality is that if you’ve already had breast cancer, you’re at higher risk to have a recurrence. Other breast diseases, like atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ, also increase your risk.
If you have a first-degree relative–mom, sister, daughter– or several family members with a history of breast or ovarian cancer, your chances of getting the disease are much greater than average, and you should take a proactive approach towards assessing your risk fairly early–your twenties are not too soon in this scenario.
If your family members were diagnosed before 45 or had cancer in both breasts, the risk is greater. A risk baseline is that one first degree relative doubles your risk, while two create a triple risk factor. Male relatives who have been diagnosed also increase your risk.
Earlier treatments for other medical conditions can also contribute to breast cancer.
For some reason, previous radiation for another disease, like Hodgkin’s lymphoma, increases your risk. If you have had radiation before you’re 30, your chances of getting breast cancer later are greater.
Diethylstilbestrol (DES) was a drug to prevent miscarriages that high-risk pregnant women were prescribed between 1940 and 1971. Among the other later-found side effects of DES, if your mother took it while pregnant then you’re at greater risk.
What are Breast Cancer Risk Factors You Can Change?
The good news is that for every risk factor you can’t control, there is one that you can manage.
You are indeed what you eat, and a healthy diet decreases your chances of getting breast cancer and heart disease. The data aren’t conclusive, but studies do indicate that a diet that’s high in vegetables, fruit, and calcium, and low in red and processed (deli, bacon) meat lessens your chance of disease. The fat in your diet isn’t as much of a factor in decreasing your breast cancer risk, but if you are diagnosed with the disease, a lower-fat diet does decrease overall mortality rates.
Researchers are also finding that even small amounts of alcohol increase your risks of breast cancer. If you do drink, limit your intake to one drink a day.
Smoking remains a no-no. E-cigarettes, or vaping, are probably not much safer from a cancer prevention standpoint. The aerosols in the e-cigarettesdo contain cancer-causing chemicals.
Routine exercise and physical activity reduce your risk of any number of health challenges, so get moving. If you live a sedentary lifestyle, your chances of breast cancer are elevated.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) has guidelines for exercise, at least two and a half hours of moderate intensity spread over a week, or an hour to two of high-intensity exercise. The ACS defines “moderate” intensity as when you can talk while exercising, but not sing.
Post-menopausal Weight Gain
Being overweight is never a healthy thing, but obesity after menopause does increase a woman’s chance of breast cancer. Losing weight is more difficult as we age, so try to maintain a healthy weight before you hit menopause.
Some types of hormone replacement therapy, primarily those with estrogen and progesterone, can contribute to breast cancer risk if you’ve taken them for more than five years and during menopause. Some oral contraceptives are also a risk factor.
Your pregnancies also have an effect on your chances of developing breast cancer. The primary risk factors are having a first pregnancy after you’re 30, not breastfeeding, and not having a full-term pregnancy.
The Breast Cancer Symptoms You Can’t Ignore
If you have any of these symptoms, please contact us at The Women’s Center to set up a consultation as soon as possible.
- New lump breast or armpit
- Swelling or thickening
- Dimpling of breast skin
- Flaky or red skin in nipple area
- Nipple discharge (not breast milk)
Even if you don’t have any symptoms, we are here to guide you and help with any concerns you have about your breast health or any other health needs. The Breast Center at The Woman’s Clinic in Jackson, MS offers state-of-the-art medicine with a particular focus on your comfort and convenience.