Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is one of the most well researched diseases in modern history. Every day we learn more about why some patients are predisposed to getting certain cancers, while others are not. We are moving swiftly towards understanding a more complete picture of the true causes of this disease.

There are a multitude of factors, both proven and speculative, that increase the risk of breast cancer. Some of these risks are modifiable (those that we can change) while others are not. Below, are some of the most common breast cancer risk factors:

Non-Modifiable Risks

Being Female

The overwhelming majority of breast cancer patients are female. While males can also develop breast cancer, they represent less than 1% of all cases. This discrepancy is because breast cells act differently in men versus women and men typically have far lower estrogen levels.

Getting Older

Age is a risk factor in many diseases and breast cancer is no different. While most cases of breast cancer develop in women over the age of 50, it can also develop at a much younger age.

Genetic Factors

Certain genetic markers, like BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, increase the risk of breast cancer. Modern medicine has offered women the opportunity to screen for these genetic markers to better understand their risk of breast cancer. While a genetic predisposition does increase risk, it does not guarantee that a patient will develop breast cancer over their lifetime, therefore the interpretation of these tests is as important as the tests themselves.

You or A Relative Have Had Breast Cancer

If you or a close relative such as a mother, sister, or daughter have had breast cancer in the past, your risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer increases significantly. Family history of cancer is an important consideration that must be discussed with your physician.

Ethnicity and Race

Certain races and ethnicities have higher risk of breast cancer.

Radiation Therapy Before the Age of 30

Patients with prior radiation therapy, usually for cancer treatment, to their face, neck or chest prior to the age of 30 are at increased risk of developing breast cancer later in life.

Modifiable Factors

Excess Weight and Obesity

Excess weight and obesity is an epidemic in the United States, threatening women, men and even children. Our very own state of Alabama suffers from one of the highest obesity rates in the country. Women who carry excess weight are at greater risk of developing breast. In addition to the excess weight, poor dietary and exercise habits increase the risk of breast cancer as well. A diet low in fruits, vegetables and lean meats and high in saturated fats, processed foods and empty carbs can contribute to both excess weight and breast cancer risk. A sedentary lifestyle that does not include several hours of exercise each week is also detrimental. We often discuss the risks of obesity-related breast cancer risk during our bariatric/weight loss surgery seminars.

Smoking and Drinking

Smoking and drinking are also risk factors for developing breast cancer. Secondhand smoke also increases the risk of breast cancer. Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption may reduce risk.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Women who have their first full term pregnancy under the age of 30 have a lower risk of breast cancer than those that have not carried a child to term or who get pregnant for the first time after the age of 30. Breastfeeding, especially for a year or more, can also reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Exposure to Chemicals and Hormones

Many women who have undergone HRT or hormone replacement therapy have an increased risk of breast cancer. Chemical exposure in the air and ground, through food and water, through cosmetics and sunscreen have all been posited as potential, but unverified risk factors.

There are other risks, known and unknown, of breast cancer, which can be discussed with your doctor.

Women who have significant risk factors of breast cancer will likely be screened more aggressively starting at a younger age. Again, while these factors increase the relative risk of developing breast cancer, they are not indicative of a diagnosis. They just require a more comprehensive screening plan.

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Springhill Medical Center

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