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Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

About risk factors

Although there are some women who are at higher risk, the fact is all women are at risk for breast cancer. That's why it is so important to follow the three-step plan for breast health. Early detection of problems provides the greatest possibility of successful treatment.

Some people with one or more risk factors never develop a disease, such as cancer, while others develop cancer and have no known risk factors.

Although certain factors may suggest or define a person's possible risks, they do not necessarily cause the disease.

Different diseases, including cancers, have different risk-factor lists. When reading about risk factors for breast cancer, keep in mind that the word risk is used in different ways.

Lifetime risk refers to the probability that a person, over the course of his or her lifetime, will be diagnosed or die from cancer.

Over her lifetime, a woman in the United States has a 1 in 8 risk of developing breast cancer, and a 1 in 35 risk of dying from breast cancer.

Relative risk is a measure of the strength of the relationship between risk factors and cancer.

With respect to breast cancer, it compares the risk of developing breast cancer in women who have a certain trait or exposure to women who do not have the trait or exposure.

About 20 to 30 percent of women with breast cancer have a family member with this disease.

Source: National Cancer Institute

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that may increase a person's chance of developing a disease. It may be an activity, such as smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. Some rick factors can be hanged, but others, such as your age or race, cannot be changed. Different diseases, including cancers, have different risk factors.

Knowing your risk factors for any disease can help guide you into the appropriate actions, including changing behaviors and being clinically monitored for the disease.

What are the risk factors for breast cancer?

Any woman may develop breast cancer. However, the following risk factors may increase the likelihood of developing the disease.

Risk factors that cannot be changed:

  • Gender. Breast cancer occurs nearly 100 times more often in women than in men.
  • Race or ethnicity. It has been noted that white women develop breast cancer slightly more often than African-American women. However, African-American women tend to die of breast cancer more often. This is may be partly due to the fact that African-American women often develop a more aggressive type of tumor, although why this happens is not known. The risk for developing breast cancer and dying from it is lower in Hispanic, Native American, and Asian women.
  • Aging. Two out of three women with invasive cancer are diagnosed after age 55.
  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Previous breast irradiation
  • Family history and genetic factors. Having a close relative, such as a mother or sister, with breast cancer increases the risk. This includes changes in certain genes such as BRCA1, BRCA2, and others.
  • Benign breast disease. Women with certain benign breast conditions (such as hyperplasia or atypical hyperplasia) have an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Dense breast tissue. Breast tissue may look dense or fatty on a mammogram. Older women with dense breast tissue are at increased risk.
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure. Women who took DES while pregnant (to lower the chance of miscarriage) are at higher risk. The possible effect on their daughters is under study.
  • Early menstrual periods. Women whose periods began early in life (before age 12) have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Late menopause. Women are at a slightly higher risk if they began menopause later in life (after age 55).

The most frequently cited lifestyle-related risk factors:

  • Not having children, or having your first child after age 30
  • Recent use (within 10 years) of oral contraceptives
  • Physical inactivity
  • Alcohol use (more than one drink per day)
  • Long-term, post-menopausal use of combined estrogen and progestin (HRT)*
  • Weight gain and obesity, especially after menopause

Environmental risk factors:

  • Exposure to pesticides, or other chemicals, is currently being examined as a possible risk factor.

*Hormone replacement therapy update

Hormone (estrogen-alone or estrogen-plus-progestin) products are approved therapies for relief from moderate to severe hot flashes related to menopause and symptoms of vulvar and vaginal atrophy. Although hormone therapy is effective for the prevention of postmenopausal osteoporosis, it should only be considered for women at significant risk of osteoporosis who cannot take nonestrogen medications. The FDA recommends that hormone therapy be used at the lowest doses for the shortest duration needed to achieve treatment goals.

Postmenopausal women who use or are considering using hormone therapy should discuss the possible benefits and risks with their doctor.

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