What Affects Your Risk of Breast Cancer?

Know what factors you can and can't control

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Breast cancer is the most common cancer, diagnosed in one out of eight women in the United States. There are a little more than two million women who live in the U. S. who have been treated for breast cancer. Men are also at risk for breast cancer, but the death rate is quite low, at 0.22%, or two-tenths of a percent.

The chance of a woman dying from breast cancer is one in thirty-three, somewhat less than lung cancer deaths, which lead the statistics in cancer deaths.

However, breast cancer death rates are decreasing, and survival rates are on the rise. This may be due to early detection (finding the cancer when it is at an early stage) and also to improved treatments.

Factors that you cannot control

  • Your Gender: If you are female, you are at risk for breast cancer. Men can also get the disease, but it is much more rare in men. Just having breast tissue and being female puts you at risk.

  • Increasing Age: As you age, your chance of getting breast cancer increases. Almost 8 out of 10 breast cancers are diagnosed in women over age 50.

  • Your Genes: Between 5% and 10% of breast cancers are related to changes (mutations) in certain genes. BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are the most common mutated genes. If you have these gene changes, you have up to an 80% chance of getting breast cancer during your life. Other genetic changes may increase your breast cancer risk as well.

  • Family health history: If you have close blood relatives who have this disease, you have a higher risk of breast cancer. If you have a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer, your own risk is doubled. It does not matter if a your close blood relatives (who have had breast cancer) are from either your mother's or father's side of the family.

  • Previous history of breast cancer: If you have had cancer in one breast, you have a greater chance of getting a new cancer in the second breast, or in another part of the first breast, if there is any breast tissue remaining. Either one of these cases are considered a new primary diagnosis, which is different from the first cancer coming back (recurrence).

  • Previous abnormal breast biopsy: Some of the types of abnormal biopsy results can be linked to a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.

  • Previous breast radiation: If you have had radiation treatment to the chest area earlier in life, you have a greatly increased risk of breast cancer.

  • Menstrual periods and menopause: If you started having periods early (before 12 years old) or went through the change of life (menopause) after the age of 55, you have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer.

  • DES Treatment: If you took the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) while pregnant, to lower your chances of losing the baby, recent studies show that you have a slightly increased risk of getting breast cancer.

  • Your Race: White (Caucasian) women are slightly more likely to get breast cancer than are African-American women. However, African-American women are at higher risk of death from this cancer. Many experts think that the main reason for this is because they may have faster growing tumors. If you are Asian, Hispanic, or American Indian, you have a lower risk of getting breast cancer.

What are factors that you can control? Read more on Page 2.

Factors that you can control

  • Pregnancy: Having no children, or having a first pregnancy after age 30 increases your risk. If a woman has had one or more pregnancies, and if the first child was conceived before age 30, the risk of breast cancer is lower. Additionally, if it is possible to breastfeed your children, you lower your risk even more.

  • Breastfeeding: If you have given birth, but not breastfed, your risk is increased. In some studies, the combination of pregnancy and breastfeeding has resulted in a decreased number of menstrual periods, which helps to lower the risk of breast cancer slightly. In one study, it was found that having multiple births and breastfeeding for 1.5 to 2 years may cut your risk of breast cancer in half.

  • Birth control pills: It is not yet clear what the role of birth control pills might be in breast cancer risk. Some studies have shown that women who are now using birth control pills have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. If you have quit taking the pill more than 10 or more years ago, you may not have an increased risk. If you are considering using the pill, discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor.

  • Alcohol Use: If you have 1 drink a day, you have a very small increased risk of breast cancer. If you have 2 to 5 drinks daily, you have a much greater risk than that of women who drink no alcohol. Drinking alcohol is linked to a slightly increased risk of getting breast cancer.

  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT): If you have had long-term use (several years or longer) of combined HRT (estrogens combined with progesterone) after menopause, you have an increased risk of breast cancer as well as heart disease, blood clots, and strokes. The breast cancers found in long-term HRT users are also detected at a more advanced stage, perhaps because HRT seems to reduce the effectiveness of mammograms. If you can stop using HRT, after five years, your breast cancer risk appears to drop back to normal. Estrogen, when used alone (ERT) does not seem to increase the risk of breast cancer as much, unless you have had a previous diagnosis of estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer. If you are considering using HRT, you should talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of using it.

  • Your Weight and Diet: If you are overweight, you have a higher risk of breast cancer, especially if you are past the change of life (menopause) and if your weight gain took place during adulthood. Also, if the extra fat is in the waist area the risk seems to be higher. Please remember that the link between excess weight and breast cancer risk is complicated, and that studies of the relationship between fat in your diet and your risk of breast cancer have often given conflicting results.

  • Your Exercise Routine: If you are not doing regular exercise, you are at greater risk for breast cancer. The only question is how much exercise will reduce your risk. One study found that as little as 1 hour and 15 minutes to 2 and a half hours per week of brisk walking reduced the risk by 18%. If you take 10 hours a week of brisk walking, you can reduce your risk a little more.

What are factors that you cannot control? Read more on Page 1

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