Risk Factors

What is your Risk for Breast Cancer?

76% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no risk factors; the greatest risk factor is being female.

You may be at risk if you:

  • Have a mother or sister with breast cancer, have a family history of breast cancer, or if you have inherited a gene for breast cancer.
  • Had your first menstrual cycle before the age of 12, menopause after the age of 50, or are post-menopausal.
  • Had your children after the age of 30 or if you have never had children.
  • Did not breastfeed your children.
  • Have more than one or two 2-ounce glasses of alcohol a day.
  • Are more than 15 pounds above your ideal weight.
  • Have ever had radiation treatment to your chest aside from mammograms.

Whether you have no personal history of breast cancer and want to decrease your risk, or whether you've had breast cancer and never want it again, it’s important to know what you can do.

Risk Factors You CAN Change

The best defense against breast cancer is a good offense. There are no perfect solutions, but you can do many things to reduce your risk of developing it:

  • Stop Smoking
    Smoking is associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer (and other kinds of cancer, too). It can also increase side effects of breast cancer treatments.
  • Maintain a Healthy Weight
    Overweight women have an increased risk of getting breast cancer after menopause. Being overweight can increase the risk of breast cancer coming back in women who had had the disease.
  • Eat Five or More Servings of Fruit and Vegetables Daily
  • Make your Grains Whole Grains
  • Get More Exercise
    Research shows that, besides improving your overall health, three or more hours of exercise a week may reduce your risk of breast cancer.
  • Reduce Your Exposure to Progesterone
    Prolonged exposure to progesterone can increase your risk for breast cancer. To reduce or eliminate sources of extra estrogen from your diet and environment, try the following steps:
    • Shed Extra Pounds
      Extra fat cells make extra estrogen and other hormones. At a healthy weight, women tend to have lower hormone levels
    • If You've Already Had Breast Cancer
      Avoid taking estrogen and progesterone products such as menopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
  • Reduce Stress
    Anything you can do to reduce stress and to increase your comfort, joy, and satisfaction levels will improve your quality of life. Techniques such as meditation, yoga, visualization exercises, and prayer may be valuable additions to your daily routine.
  • Buy Organic and Unprocessed Foods
    Some women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer choose to eat organic foods to limit their exposure to excess pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones. Whether organic, or not, wash and peel vegetables and produce to limit the amount of pesticides and contamination to your food.
  • Restrict Sources of Red Meat and Other Animal Fats
    Restrict red meat and other animal fats, including dairy fat in cheese, milk, and ice cream, because they may contain hormones, other growth factors, antibiotics, and pesticides.
  • Limit Alcohol Use
    Try to have fewer than five alcoholic drinks a week: cutting down on alcohol increases your liver’s ability to regulate blood-estrogen levels.
  • If Circumstances Allow, Consider Having Children Sooner Rather than Later in Life
    A full-term pregnancy, which stops your menstrual cycle for nine months and prepares your breasts for mild production, seems to offer some protection against breast cancer.

Risk Factors You CANNOT Change

Despite doing everything right to reduce your risk for developing breast cancer, you have some risk factors that are out of your control:

  • Age
    Just as with many other diseases, the risk of getting breast cancer increases as you get older. The average woman’s risk of getting breast cancer during her lifetime is one in seven, assuming she lives to age 90. 
  • Personal History of Breast Cancer
    If you've had breast cancer already, you’re at risk of it coming back. That risk might be low, medium, or high, depending on your situation. You are at higher risk of getting a new breast cancer compared with someone who has never had the disease.
  • Family History
    Although most women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease, breast cancer in your family can slightly increase your risk.
  • Certain Breast Changes
    Normal breast cells can sometimes get overexcited and start to misbehave. These changes can show up as lumps, thickness, or calcification on a mammogram and are sometimes associated with increased risk of breast cancer in the future.
  • Menstrual history
    Women who had their first period before they were 12 years old or went through menopause after the age of 50 have a higher risk of breast cancer than women with fewer years of exposure to hormones made by the ovaries.
  • Race
    In the United States, breast cancer occurs more often in white women than in Latin, Asian, or African-American women. In woman 40 and younger, breast cancer is more common in African-American women.
  • Radiation Therapy
    If you have had radiation therapy to your chest for another type of cancer before you were 30 years old – and particularly during adolescence – you may have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Breast Density
    Women with “dense” breasts, which contain more active glandular tissue, are more likely to develop breast cancer than women whose breast are less dense(mainly made up of fatty tissue with less active glands).
  • Exposure to Diethylstilbestrol (DES)
    DES is an estrogen-like hormone that was used in the past to help women prevent miscarriage. Daughters of women who used DES have increased risk of cancer of the breast and vagina. This drug may also increase the risk of breast cancer in women who use the drug.
  • Late Pregnancy or no Pregnancy
    Women who had their first full-term pregnancy after age 30 and women who have never had a full-term pregnancy are at higher risk for breast cancer than those who give birth earlier in life. A full-term pregnancy, which stops the menstrual cycle for nine months, seems to offer some protection against breast cancer.

Risk Reduction for Women at High Risk

If you have a family history of breast cancer, you might have a higher risk for developing breast cancer during your lifetime.

Genetic Abnormalities

The most significant family history is having female blood relatives diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50, diagnosed with cancer in both breasts, or diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Some women who have a strong family history of breast cancer have inherited a specific gene abnormality that increases their risk for the disease. The Breast Cancer 1 (BRCA1) and Breast Cancer 2 (BRCA2) gene abnormalities are the most common types that are linked to a high risk for breast cancer (as well as ovarian cancer.

Take a Breast Cancer risk assessment here.

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