18 Risk Factors for Breast Cancer You Should Know

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There are many things you can do to lower your risk of health issues, whether it’s wearing sunblock to avoid skin cancer or staying away from ultra-processed foods to reduce the risk of diabetes and heart complications. But is it possible to take certain actions in the hopes of avoiding breast cancer? The bottom line is yes, it’s possible.  But first, you should know some important information about breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer for women in the U.S., right behind skin cancer. Breast cancer can occur in both men and women but is far more common in women. Breast cancer develops when cells in the breast begin to grow abnormally while dividing rapidly and clumping together, forming lumps or masses. While the exact cause of breast cancer is not well understood, researchers have identified hormonal, lifestyle, and environmental factors that increase the risk of breast cancer.

“When we think about breast cancer, we try to break it down into things you can and can’t change,” says Megan Kruse, MD, an oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and assistant professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. “There are risk factors you’re born with and then there are others that you can actually do something about.”

Although these factors may increase your risk of breast cancer, they do not necessarily mean that you will develop breast cancer. And while you might not have any of the following risk factors, that also doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Below are the biggest breast cancer risk factors you should know.

18. Drinking Alcohol


According to the American Cancer Society, women who drink two or more drinks per day have a 20 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who only have one alcoholic beverage a day. Why alcohol? Alcohol can raise estrogen levels in the body, which increases your risk of cancer.

17. Being Overweight or Obese


“Obesity is a risk factor, particularly among postmenopausal women,” said Dr. Kruse. Before entering menopause, the ovaries are in charge of making the majority of estrogen; after menopause, the ovaries stop producing estrogen, so that means the hormone comes from fat tissue–and having too much fat can raise estrogen levels and increase your risk of breast cancer. Women who tend to be overweight are likely to suffer from high blood insulin levels, which are also linked to breast cancer. “The closer a woman is to her ideal body weight, the less risk she has of getting breast cancer,” mentioned Dr. Kruse.

16. Not Enough Exercise


There is a lot of evidence that suggests that regular physical activity can help reduce breast cancer risk, especially in women past menopause. While it is unclear how much exercise is needed, studies have found that even as little as a few hours a week can make a difference.

15. Having Children Later in Life


“We see a slightly increased risk of breast cancer among women who have either never had a child or had their children after the age of 30,” said Dr. Kruse. Not to mention, the effect of pregnancy is closely liked to the type of breast cancer you have. For instance, certain types of breast cancer known as triple-negative, pregnancy seems to increase risk.

14. Not Breastfeeding


There are studies that suggest that breastfeeding can lower the risk of breast cancer, especially if it’s continued for one to two years. However, this is relatively difficult to study, particularly in countries like the U.S. where breastfeeding for this long is uncommon. This lowered risk may be due to breastfeeding reducing a woman’s total number of menstrual cycles.

13. Hormonal Birth Control


In some circumstances, hormones in certain types of birth control methods, including oral contraceptives, birth control shots, and IUDs, can increase the risk of breast cancer.

12. Hormone Therapy After Menopause


While hormone therapy with estrogen and progesterone can help relieve symptoms of menopause and help prevent osteoporosis, it can also increase the risk of breast cancer. Not to mention, it can also increase the likelihood that the cancer is found at a more advanced stage and ups the risk of heart disease, blood clots, and strokes. According the American Cancer Society, the risks may, unfortunately, outweigh the benefits.

11. Being a Woman


Due to breast cancer relying on estrogen to grow, being a woman is an automatic risk factor for developing breast cancer, says Jennifer Specht, MD, oncologist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and an associate member of the clinical research division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

10. Aging


Ultimately, the risk of breast cancer increases with aging. Commonly, breast cancer is found in women aged 55 or older.

9. Genes


Nearly 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are considered to be hereditary, meaning they occur due to gene defects that have been passed down from a parent. Having an inherited gene mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene is the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer.

8. Family History


The American Cancer Society says that the majority of women (about 8 out of 10) who get breast cancer do not have a family background of cancer. However, by having a first degree relative with breast cancer, such as your mother, sister or daughter, the risk almost doubles, and having two first-degree relatives triples your risk. Less than 15 percent of women with breast cancer have a family member with the disease.

7. Past Breast Cancer


If you have suffered from breast cancer in the past in one breast, you have a higher risk of developing cancer in the other breast or in a different part of the same breast. While the risk is low, it does, however, tend to be higher for young women with breast cancer.

6. Race and Ethnicity


Breast cancer risk does vary in women from different ethnicities and races. For instance, white women are more likely to develop breast cancer than African-American women. However, breast cancer is more common in African-American women under the age of 45, and African-American women are also more likely to die from breast cancer at any age. Asian, Hispanic, and Native American women are all considered to have a lower risk of developing and dying from the disease.

5. Dense Breast Tissue


Breasts are made of fatty tissue, fibrous tissue, and glandular tissue. There is a chance you might be told you have dense breasts if a mammogram shows you have more glandular and fibrous tissues and less fatty tissue. Women who have dense breasts are more likely to develop breast cancer than women who have average density, according to the American Cancer Society.

4. Menstruating Early


If you got your first period before the age of 12, that means you have had more menstrual cycles in your lifetime and have therefore been exposed to more estrogen and progesterone, which as previously mentioned, increases your risk of breast cancer.

3. Menopause After 55


Going through menopause after the age of 55 signifies you’ve had more menstrual cycles, which as mentioned, further exposes you to estrogen and progesterone. Again, ultimately increasing your risk of breast cancer.

2. Radiation to the Chest During Childhood


“Being treated for a childhood cancer with radiation to the chest significantly increases the risk of developing breast cancer later in life,” says Dr. Specht. The risk is considered higher if you had radiation as a teen or young adult, since this is the stage when breasts are developing.

4. Menstruating Early


If you got your first period before the age of 12, that means you have had more menstrual cycles in your lifetime and have therefore been exposed to more estrogen and progesterone, which as previously mentioned, increases your risk of breast cancer.

3. Menopause After 55


Going through menopause after the age of 55 signifies you’ve had more menstrual cycles, which as mentioned, further exposes you to estrogen and progesterone. Again, ultimately increasing your risk of breast cancer.

2. Radiation to the Chest During Childhood


“Being treated for a childhood cancer with radiation to the chest significantly increases the risk of developing breast cancer later in life,” says Dr. Specht. The risk is considered higher if you had radiation as a teen or young adult, since this is the stage when breasts are developing.

1. Exposure to DES


Women who consumed diethylstilbestrol (DES), which is an estrogen-like drug that was administered from the 1940s through the early 1970s to lower the risk of miscarriages, have bad side effects and a slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer. Women whose mothers took DES while pregnant may also have a slightly higher risk of getting breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.


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