Breast Cancer Risk Factors

Breast cancer is a common but serious illness that affects millions of people in the United States at any given time. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute, as many as 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer at some time during their lives. There is no way to completely eliminate the possibility of developing breast cancer, but there are steps you can take to lower the chances. 

Risk factors are choices or characteristics that increase your chances of getting this disease. While some risk factors are under your control, others are not. Let's look at what you can do to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. 

How to Reduce Your Risk for Breast Cancer

If any of these factors are raising your chances of developing breast cancer, you can make lifestyle changes to address them.

Some of the risk factors for breast cancer that can be changed or controlled include:

  • Maintain a healthy weight - Carrying excess weight after menopause may raise your risk of breast cancer. When you have excess fat on your body, your estrogen levels and blood insulin levels will be higher. Both of these factors increase breast cancer risks. Losing excess weight can lower your breast cancer risk. 

  • Reduce your exposure to hormones - If you take certain forms of hormonal therapy or birth control, you may have a greater risk of developing breast cancer. You can eliminate this risk by using non-hormonal birth control methods, such as condoms. If you are a woman in menopause, you can also reduce breast cancer risks by avoiding hormone replacement therapy. However, hormone replacement therapy also offers benefits, so it is important to discuss this issue with your doctor before making a decision. 

  • Limit alcohol consumption - Consuming alcohol on a regular basis may increase breast cancer risks. Specifically, the American Cancer Society reports that alcohol consumption damages your body's tissues, impacts your hormones, causes weight gain, and may change the way your body absorbs nutrients. For this reason, the American Cancer Society recommends that women have no more than one alcoholic drink per day, while men should have no more than two alcoholic drinks per day. 

  • Breastfeed - Breastfeeding a baby for at least one year can reduce your risk of getting breast cancer. This reduction in risk is possible regardless of your age at the time you gave birth. 

Breast Cancer Risk Factors You Can’t Control 

Some breast cancer risk factors are not under your control. These risk factors are determined by your genetic makeup and age. Risk factors for breast cancer that cannot be controlled include:

  • Age - If you are over the age of 55, you will be more likely to develop an invasive breast cancer than a younger woman. 

  • Gender - While some men do develop breast cancer, being female raises your risk of developing breast cancer dramatically. 

  • Density of breast tissue - Dense breast tissue doesn’t necessarily raise the risk of developing cancer, but it will make cancer more difficult to see on a mammogram. This means the cancer may not be discovered at an early stage. 

  • Hereditary genetic mutations - Specific gene mutations can raise your chances of developing breast cancer significantly. If you have an immediate family member who developed breast cancer, such as a daughter, sister, aunt, mother, grandmother or cousin, it is important to talk to your doctor about the possibility of genetic testing to determine whether you carry a mutation that could cause breast cancer. 

  • Race/ethnicity - If you are a white woman, you are more likely to get breast cancer than a black woman. However, black women are more likely than white women to develop this disease under the age of 45. The risk of breast cancer is also higher among women who are of Eastern European Jewish or Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. 

  • Reproductive history - If you begin menstruation before the age of 12 and/or if you continue menstruation until after the age of 55, you will be at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. This occurs because of the increased exposure to progesterone and estrogen. 

It is important to note that, while many people who develop breast cancer have multiple risk factors, some people who receive this diagnosis have no risk factors at all. Nonetheless, removing as many risk factors as possible can reduce your chances of getting this serious disease. 

Because you can’t get rid of all the risk factors for breast cancer, it is also important to keep an eye out for changes in your breast or other signs of a problem. Depending on your age, regular breast cancer screenings may be recommended. If you are at a high risk of developing cancer, talk to your doctor about beginning these screenings at a younger age.