Breast cancer can make many women worry. And that’s natural.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the world. Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are over 50, but younger women can also get breast cancer.
About 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. There’s a good chance of recovery if it’s detected in its early stages.
For this reason, it’s vital that women check their breasts regularly for any changes and always get any changes examined by their GP.
Breast Cancer Causes and Risk Factors
The precise causes of breast cancer are unclear, but we know the main risk factors. Still, most women considered at high risk for breast cancer do not get it, while many with no known risk factors do.
The main risks are being older and having breast cancer in your family. The risk goes up for women with certain types of benign breast lumps and for women who have had ovarian cancer. And if you’ve had breast cancer, you can get it again.
History of breast cancer.
A woman who has had cancer in one breast, such as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) or invasive breast cancer, is three to four times likelier to develop a new breast cancer, unrelated to the first one, in either the other breast or in another part of the same breast. This is different than a recurrence of the previous breast cancer.
Direct family history.
Having a mother, sister, or daughter (“first-degree” relative) with breast cancer puts a woman at higher risk. It’s even greater if this relative developed breast cancer before 50 and had cancer in both breasts.
Having one first-degree relative with breast cancer roughly doubles your risk, and having two first-degree relatives triples your risk. Having a male blood relative with breast cancer will also increase the risk.
Your risk goes up as you age. About 77% of women diagnosed with breast cancer each year are over 50, and more than 40% are 65 and older.
In women ages 40 to 50, there is a 1 in 68 chance of developing breast cancer. From 50 to 60, that goes up to 1 in 42. From 60 to 70, it’s one in 28. And in women 70 and older, it’s 1 in 26.
About 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases are inherited. Carriers of alterations in either of two genes, called BRCA1 or BRCA2, are at higher risk. Women with an inherited alteration in the BRCA1 gene have a 72% chance of developing breast cancer by the time they’re 80. There’s a 69% chance that a woman with an inherited alteration in the BRCA2 gene will get breast cancer by that age.
Your breasts are a mix of fatty, fibrous, and glandular tissue. Dense breasts have more glandular and fibrous tissue and less fat. A woman with dense breasts is 1.5 to 2 times more likely to get breast cancer.
Distant family history.
This refers to breast cancer in second- or third-degree relatives such as aunts, grandmothers, and cousins.
Having atypical hyperplasia (lobular or ductal) or lobular carcinoma in situ increases a woman’s breast cancer risk by four to five times.
Previous abnormal breast biopsy.
Women with earlier biopsies showing any of the following have a slight increased risk: fibroadenomas with complex features, hyperplasia without atypia, sclerosing adenosis, and solitary papilloma.
The more estrogen your body has made over time, the higher your risk. Getting your period before age 12, starting menopause after age 55, and never being pregnant raise your lifetime exposure to estrogen and breast cancer risks.
If you had radiation treatment to your chest before age 30, usually as treatment for cancers such as lymphoma.
Other cancer in the family. If a family member had ovarian cancer before age 50, your risk is increased.
Nearly everyone knows someone touched by the disease.
But there is a lot of good news about breast cancer recently. Treatments keep getting better, and we know more than ever about ways to prevent breast cancer. These simple steps can help lower the risk of breast cancer. Not every one applies to every woman, but together they can have a big impact.
Be Physically Active
Exercise is as close to a silver bullet for good health as there is, and women who are physically active for at least 30 minutes a day have a lower risk of breast cancer. Regular workout is also one of the was to help keep weight in check.
Keep Weight in Check
It’s easy to tune out because it gets said so often, but maintaining a healthy weight is an important goal for everyone. Being overweight can increase the risk of many different cancers, including breast cancer, especially after menopause.
Smokers and non-smokers alike know how unhealthy smoking is. On top of lowering quality of life and increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and at least 15 cancers – including breast cancer – it also causes smelly breath, bad teeth, and wrinkles. Now that’s motivation to stay smoke-free or work to get smoke-free.
Eat Fruits & Vegetables and Avoid Alcohol
A healthy diet can help lower the risk of breast cancer. Try to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and keep alcohol at moderate levels or lower. While moderate drinking can be good for the heart in older adults, even low levels of intake can increase the risk of breast cancer. If you don’t drink, don’t feel you need to start. If you drink moderately, there’s likely no reason to stop. But, if you drink more, you should cut down or quit.
Breastfeed, If Possible
Breastfeeding for a total of one year or more (combined for all children) lowers the risk of breast cancer. It also has great health benefits for the child.
Avoid Post-Menopausal Hormones
Post-menopausal hormones shouldn’t be taken long term to prevent chronic diseases, like osteoporosis and heart disease. Studies show they have a mixed effect on health, increasing the risk of some diseases and lowering the risk of others, and both estrogenonly hormones and estrogen-plus-progestin hormones increase the risk of breast cancer. If women do take post-menopausal hormones, it should be for the shortest time possible. The best person to talk to about the risks and benefits of post-menopausal hormones is your doctor.
Avoid Birth Control Pills, Particularly After Age 35 or If You Smoke
Birth control pills have both risks and benefits. The younger a woman is, the lower the risks are. While women are taking birth control pills, they have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. This risk goes away quickly, though, after stopping the pill. The risk of stroke and heart attack is also increased while on the pill – particularly if a woman smokes. However, long-term use can also have important benefits, like lowering the risk of ovarian cancer, colon cancer and uterine cancer – not to mention unwanted pregnancy – so there’s also a lot in its favor. If you’re very concerned about breast cancer, avoiding birth control pills is one option to lower risk.
Don’t Forget Screening
Despite some controversy, studies show that breast cancer screening with mammography saves lives. It doesn’t help prevent cancer, but it can help find cancer early when it’s most treatable. For most women, regular mammograms can begin at age 40, but specific recommendations vary by age and risk.
If you are age 55 or over:
Mammograms are recommended every other year. You can choose to continue to have them every year.
If you are age 45 – 54:
Mammograms are recommended every year.
If you are age 40 – 44:
You can choose to begin yearly mammograms. It is important to talk to a doctor about the risk and benefits of mammograms at these ages.
Clinical breast exams and self-exams are not recommended. But you should be familiar with your breasts and tell a health care provider right away if you notice any changes in how your breasts look or feel.
Other Important Risk Factors for Breast Cancer
There are a number of important breast cancer risk factors that women have no control over. Knowing which ones apply to you can help you understand your risk and do what you can to lower it. If you feel you’re at high risk, talk to a doctor or other health professional. These can increase a woman’s breast cancer risk:
Older age, especially 60 years or over
First menstrual period (menarche) before age 12
Menopause at age 55 or over
Tall height (5’8” or taller)
Family history of breast cancer
First childbirth after age 35
History of benign breast disease (like atypical hyperplasia
Being diagnosed with breast cancer can affect daily life in many ways, depending on what stage it’s at and the treatment you’re having.
How women cope with their diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person. You can be reassured that there are several forms of support available, if you need it.