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October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Source: American Cancer Society

breast cancer logoBreast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States (other than skin cancer). But millions of women are surviving the disease thanks in part to early detection and improvements in treatment.

The American Cancer Society is actively fighting breast cancer by helping women get tested to find breast cancer earlier, and helping them understand their treatment options and cope with the physical and emotional side effects. The organization also funds research to help prevent, find, and treat breast cancer.

What are the risk factors for breast cancer?
A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease, such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, exposing skin to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for cancers of the lung, mouth, larynx (voice box), bladder, kidney, and several other organs.

But risk factors don’t tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will get the disease. Most women who have one or more breast cancer risk factors never develop the disease, while many women with breast cancer have no apparent risk factors (other than being a woman and growing older). Even when a woman with risk factors develops breast cancer, it is hard to know just how much these factors might have contributed.

Some risk factors, like a person’s age or race, can’t be changed. Others are linked to cancer-causing factors in the environment. Still others are related to personal behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, and diet. Some factors influence risk more than others, and your risk for breast cancer can change over time, due to factors such as aging or lifestyle.

Risk factors you cannot change

Gender
Simply being a woman is the main risk factor for developing breast cancer. Men can develop breast cancer, but this disease is about 100 times more common among women than men. This is probably because men have less of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, which can promote breast cancer cell growth

Aging
Your risk of developing breast cancer increases as you get older. About 1 out of 8 invasive breast cancers are found in women younger than 45, while about 2 of 3 invasive breast cancers are found in women age 55 or older.

Genetic risk factors
About 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, meaning that they result directly from gene defects (called mutations) inherited from a parent. See the section “Do we know what causes breast cancer?” for more information about genes and DNA and how they can affect breast cancer risk.

BRCA1 and BRCA2: The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. In normal cells, these genes help prevent cancer by making proteins that keep the cells from growing abnormally. If you have inherited a mutated copy of either gene from a parent, you have a high risk of developing breast cancer during your lifetime.

Although in some families with BRCA1 mutations the lifetime risk of breast cancer is as high as 80%, on average this risk seems to be in the range of 55 to 65%. For BRCA2 mutations the risk is lower, around 45%.

Breast cancers linked to these mutations occur more often in younger women and more often affect both breasts than cancers not linked to these mutations. Women with these inherited mutations also have an increased risk for developing other cancers, particularly ovarian cancer. In the United States BRCA mutations are more common in Jewish people of Ashkenazi (Eastern Europe) origin than in other racial and ethnic groups, but they can occur in anyone.

Changes in other genes: Other gene mutations can also lead to inherited breast cancers. These gene mutations are much rarer and often do not increase the risk of breast cancer as much as the BRCA genes. They are not frequent causes of inherited breast cancer.

Genetic testing: Genetic tests can be done to look for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (or some other genes linked to breast cancer risk). Although testing may be helpful in some situations, the pros and cons need to be considered carefully. For more information, see the section “Can breast cancer be prevented?”

Family history of breast cancer
Breast cancer risk is higher among women whose close blood relatives have this disease.
Having one first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer approximately doubles a woman’s risk. Having 2 first-degree relatives increases her risk about 3-fold.
The exact risk is not known, but women with a family history of breast cancer in a father or brother also have an increased risk of breast cancer. Altogether, less than 15% of women with breast cancer have a family member with this disease. This means that most (over 85%) women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of this disease.

Personal history of breast cancer
A woman with cancer in one breast has a 3- to 4-fold increased risk of developing a new cancer in the other breast or in another part of the same breast. This is different from a recurrence (return) of the first cancer.

Race and ethnicity
Overall, white women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than are African-American women, but African-American women are more likely to die of this cancer. However, in women under 45 years of age, breast cancer is more common in African- American women. Asian, Hispanic, and Native-American women have a lower risk of developing and dying from breast cancer.

Dense breast tissue
Breasts are made up of fatty tissue, fibrous tissue, and glandular tissue. Someone is said to have dense breast tissue (as seen on a mammogram) when they have more glandular and fibrous tissue and less fatty tissue. Women with dense breasts on mammogram have a risk of breast cancer that is 1.2 to 2 times that of women with average breast density. Unfortunately, dense breast tissue can also make mammograms less accurate.

A number of factors can affect breast density, such as age, menopausal status, certain medications (including menopausal hormone therapy), pregnancy, and genetics.

Certain benign breast conditions
Women diagnosed with certain benign breast conditions might have an increased risk of breast cancer. Some of these conditions are more closely linked to breast cancer risk than others. Doctors often divide benign breast conditions into 3 general groups, depending on how they affect this risk.

Non-proliferative lesions: These conditions are not associated with overgrowth of breast tissue. They do not seem to affect breast cancer risk, or if they do, it is to a very small extent.
Proliferative lesions without atypia: These conditions show excessive growth of cells in the ducts or lobules of the breast tissue. They seem to raise a woman’s risk of breast cancer slightly (1½ to 2 times normal).

Proliferative lesions with atypia: In these conditions, there is an overgrowth of cells in the ducts or lobules of the breast tissue, with some of the cells no longer appearing normal. They have a stronger effect on breast cancer risk, raising it 3½ to 5 times higher than normal.
Women with a family history of breast cancer and either hyperplasia or atypical hyperplasia have an even higher risk of developing a breast cancer.
For more information on these conditions, see our document Non-cancerous Breast Conditions.

Menstrual periods
Women who have had more menstrual cycles because they started menstruating early (before age 12) and/or went through menopause later (after age 55) have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. The increase in risk may be due to a longer lifetime exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Previous chest radiation
Women who, as children or young adults, had radiation therapy to the chest area as treatment for another cancer (such as lymphoma) have a significantly increased risk for breast cancer. This varies with the patient’s age when they had radiation. If chemotherapy was also given, it may have stopped ovarian hormone production for some time, lowering the risk. The risk of developing breast cancer from chest radiation is highest if the radiation was given during adolescence, when the breasts were still developing. Radiation treatment after age 40 does not seem to increase breast cancer risk.

Diethylstilbestrol exposure
From the 1940s through the 1960s some pregnant women were given the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) because it was thought to lower their chances of miscarriage (losing the baby). These women have a slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer. Women whose mothers took DES during pregnancy may also have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. For more information on DES see our document DES Exposure: Questions and Answers.

Lifestyle-related factors and breast cancer risk

Having children
Women who have had no children or who had their first child after age 30 have a slightly higher breast cancer risk overall. Having many pregnancies and becoming pregnant at a young age reduce breast cancer risk overall. Still, the effect of pregnancy is different for different types of breast cancer. For a certain type of breast cancer known as triple-negative, pregnancy seems to increase risk.

Birth control

Oral contraceptives: Studies have found that women using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) have a slightly greater risk of breast cancer than women who have never used them. This risk seems to go back to normal over time once the pills are stopped. Women who stopped using oral contraceptives more than 10 years ago do not appear to have any increased breast cancer risk. When thinking about using oral contraceptives, women should discuss their other risk factors for breast cancer with their health care team.

Depot-medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA; Depo-Provera®) is an injectable form of progesterone that is given once every 3 months as birth control. A few studies have looked at the effect of DMPA on breast cancer risk. Women currently using DMPA seem to have an increase in risk, but the risk doesn’t seem to be increased if this drug was used more than 5 years ago.

Hormone therapy after menopause
Hormone therapy with estrogen (often combined with progesterone) has been used for many years to help relieve symptoms of menopause and to help prevent osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). Earlier studies suggested it might have other health benefits as well, but these benefits have not been found in more recent, better designed studies. This treatment goes by many names, such as post-menopausal hormone therapy (PHT), hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and menopausal hormone therapy (MHT).
For more information about this topic, see the document Menopausal Hormone Therapy.

Breastfeeding
Some studies suggest that breastfeeding may slightly lower breast cancer risk, especially if it is continued for 1½ to 2 years. But this has been a difficult area to study, especially in countries such as the United States, where breastfeeding for this long is uncommon.
One explanation for this possible effect may be that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s total number of lifetime menstrual cycles (similar to starting menstrual periods at a later age or going through early menopause).

Drinking alcohol
The use of alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Compared with non-drinkers, women who consume 1 alcoholic drink a day have a very small increase in risk. Those who have 2 to 5 drinks daily have about 1½ times the risk of women who don’t drink alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption is also known to increase the risk of developing several other types of cancer.

Being overweight or obese
Being overweight or obese after menopause increases breast cancer risk. Before menopause your ovaries produce most of your estrogen, and fat tissue produces a small amount of estrogen. After menopause (when the ovaries stop making estrogen), most of a woman’s estrogen comes from fat tissue. Having more fat tissue after menopause can increase your chance of getting breast cancer by raising estrogen levels. Also, women who are overweight tend to have higher blood insulin levels. Higher insulin levels have also been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer.

But the connection between weight and breast cancer risk is complex. For example, the risk appears to be increased for women who gained weight as an adult but may not be increased among those who have been overweight since childhood. Also, excess fat in the waist area may affect risk more than the same amount of fat in the hips and thighs. Researchers believe that fat cells in various parts of the body have subtle differences that may explain this.

Physical activity
Evidence is growing that physical activity in the form of exercise reduces breast cancer risk. The main question is how much exercise is needed. In one study from the Women’s Health Initiative, as little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking reduced a woman’s risk by 18%. Walking 10 hours a week reduced the risk a little more.

For more information about the Risks for Breast Cancer, visit American Cancer Society website.