Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Every woman wants to know what she can do to lower her risk of breast cancer. Some of the factors associated with breast cancer — being a woman, your age, and your genetics, for example — can’t be changed.
Other factors — being overweight, lack of exercise, smoking cigarettes, and eating unhealthy food — can be changed by making choices. By choosing the healthiest lifestyle options possible, you can empower yourself and make sure your breast cancer risk is as low as possible.
The known risk factors for breast cancer are listed below. If a factor can’t be changed (such as your genetics), you can learn about protective steps you can take that can help keep your risk as low as possible
Being A Woman
Just being a woman is the biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer. There are about 190,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer and 60,000 cases of non-invasive breast cancer this year in American women. While men do develop breast cancer, less than 1% of all new breast cancer cases happen in men. Approximately 2,000 cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in American men this year.
The biggest reasons for the difference in breast cancer rates between men and women are:
Women’s breast development takes 3 to 4 years and is usually complete by age 14. It’s uncommon for men’s breasts to fully form — most of the male breasts you see are fat, not formed glands.
Once fully formed, breast cells are very immature and highly active until a woman’s first full-term pregnancy. While they are immature, a women’s breast cells are very responsive to estrogen and other hormones, including hormone disrupters in the environment.
Men’s breast cells are inactive and most men have extremely low levels of estrogen.
Sex change does not change this factor.
Women with close relatives who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease.
If you’ve had one first-degree female relative (sister, mother, daughter) diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk is doubled. If two first-degree relatives have been diagnosed, your risk is 5 times higher than average.
If your brother or father have been diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk is higher, though researchers aren’t sure how much higher.
In some cases, a strong family history of breast cancer is linked to having an abnormal gene associated with a high risk of breast cancer, such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. In other cases, an abnormal CHEK2 gene may play a role in developing breast cancer.
Overweight and obese women — defined as having a BMI (body mass index) over 25 — have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared to women who maintain a healthy weight, especially after menopause. Being overweight also can increase the risk of the breast cancer coming back (recurrence) in women who have had the disease.
This higher risk is because fat cells make estrogen; extra fat cells mean more estrogen in the body, and estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers develop and grow.
Still, the link between extra weight and breast cancer is complicated and affected by other factors. For example, the location of the extra weight matters. Extra fat around your belly may increase risk more than the same amount of extra fat around your thighs or hips.
Steps you can take
Losing weight can be harder as you get older, but it can be done with careful changes to your diet and regular exercise. The first thing to do is to talk to your doctor about a healthy weight for you based on your age, height, body type, and activity level. Next, talk to your doctor about a safe and sensible plan to lose weight designed specifically for you and your needs.
Breastfeeding can lower breast cancer risk, especially if a woman breastfeeds for longer than 1 year. There is less benefit for women who breastfeed for less than a year, which is more typical for women living in countries such as the United States. There are several reasons why breastfeeding protects breast health:
Making milk 24/7 limits breast cells’ ability to misbehave
Most women have fewer menstrual cycles when they’re breastfeeding (added to the 9 missed periods during pregnancy) resulting in lower estrogen levels
many women tend to eat more nutritious foods and follow healthier lifestyles (limit smoking and alcohol use) while breastfeeding
Beyond breast health protection, breastfeeding provides important health benefits to the baby and helps the bonding process.
Steps you can take
The decision to breastfeed is very personal and depends on your unique situation. If breastfeeding is an option for you, you may want to consider it.
Research consistently shows that drinking alcoholic beverages — beer, wine, and liquor — increases a woman’s risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol also may increase breast cancer risk by damaging DNA in cells.
Compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer. Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10% for each additional drink women regularly have each day.
Teen and tween girls aged 9 to 15 who drink three to five drinks a week have three times the risk of developing benign breast lumps. (Certain categories of non-cancerous breast lumps are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer later in life.)
While only a few studies have been done on drinking alcohol and the risk of recurrence, a 2009 study found that drinking even a few alcoholic beverages per week (three to four drinks) increased the risk of breast cancer coming back in women who’d been diagnosed with early-stage disease.
The bottom line is that regularly drinking alcohol can harm your health, even if you don’t binge drink or get drunk. All types of alcohol count. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.
Steps you can take
If you want to do everything you can to lower your breast cancer risk, limiting how much alcohol you drink makes sense. You may choose to stop drinking alcohol completely. But if you plan to continue drinking, try to have two or fewer alcoholic drinks per week.
Lack Of Exercise
Research shows a link between exercising regularly at a moderate or intense level for 4 to 7 hours per week and a lower risk of breast cancer. Exercise consumes and controls blood sugar and limits blood levels of insulin growth factor, a hormone that can affect how breast cells grow and behave. People who exercise regularly tend to be healthier and are more likely to maintain a healthy weight and have little or no excess fat compared to people who don’t exercise.
Fat cells make estrogen and extra fat cells make extra estrogen. When breast cells are exposed to extra estrogen over time, the risk of developing breast cancer is higher.
Steps you can take
Smoking causes a number of diseases and is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in younger, premenopausal women. Research also has shown that there may be a link between very heavy second-hand smoke exposure and breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women.
Smoking also can increase complications from breast cancer treatment, including:
damage to the lungs from radiation therapy
difficulty healing after surgery and breast reconstruction
higher risk of blood clots when taking hormonal therapy medicines
Steps you can take
If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, use every resource you can find to help you quit.
To read a detailed report of breast cancer risk factors please click HERE