Anything that may increase the chance of developing a disease is considered a risk factor. As research has indicated women with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop breast cancer.
The exact causes for breast cancer are not known. Often doctors cannot explain why one woman may develop breast cancer but another does not. What is known is that bruising, bumping or touching the breast does not cause cancer. Breast cancer is not contagious. It is not “caught” from others.
There have been studies that have revealed some of the risk factors for breast cancer. Among those risk factors are a woman’s age, a family or personal history of breast cancer, changes in her breast, changes in her genes and her menstrual history. Other risk factors for breast cancer include a woman’s race, if she has had radiation therapy to the chest, and her breast density. Still other factors for breast cancer include taking diethylstilbestrol (DES), her being overweight or obese after menopause, not being physically active, and her alcohol consumption.
Breast cancer is not common in women before menopause. As women age their chances for breast cancer development can increase. Breast cancer occurrence is greater for women over age 60.
The chance of a woman developing breast cancer is greater if her mother, sister or daughter has a history of the disease. If a family member developed breast cancer before the age of 40, the risk is even greater for a woman developing breast cancer. Other relatives having breast cancer, either on her maternal or paternal side of the family, can also place a woman at greater risk for developing breast cancer.
Having a personal history of breast cancer can also increase a woman’s risk. If a woman has had breast cancer in one breast the risk of getting breast cancer in the other breast increase.
Changes in a woman’s breast can place a woman at risk for breast cancer. Cells in a woman’s breast may look abnormal under a microscope. Abnormal cells such as atypical hyperplasia and lobular carcinoma in situ (or LCIS) increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer.
Changes in a woman’s genes including BRCA1, BRCA2, and others may increase the risk for breast cancer. Tests from family members who have been known to have breast cancer can reveal the presence of specific gene changes in family members. In order to improve the detection of this disease in women who have these changes in their genes health care providers may be able to suggest ways to try to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
A woman’s menstrual and reproductive history can place a woman at risk for breast cancer. Women having their first menstrual period before age 12 have a greater risk for developing breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer increase the older a woman is when she had her first child. A woman going through menopause after age 55 places her at greater risk for breast cancer. If a woman has never had children she is at a greater risk of breast cancer. Taking menopausal hormone therapy with estrogen plus progestin after menopause appears to increase risks for breast cancer. Studies have shown no link between miscarriage or abortion and risks for breast cancer.
Race is another risk factor for breast cancer. Caucasian women more often than Latina, African or Asian American women are diagnosed with breast cancer.
Radiation therapy performed to the chest, including the breast, before a woman is age 30 is another known risk factor for breast cancer. Studies indicate the younger the age of a woman when she received radiation treatment the higher the risk for breast cancer in later life.
A woman’s breast tissue is either fatty or dense. Placing them at a higher risk of breast cancer are older women whose mammograms, or breast x-rays, reveal more dense tissue.
Diethylstilbestrol, also known as DES, was given to some pregnant women in the United States during the 1940’s until 1971. This is no longer given to pregnant women. Taking DES during pregnancy may slightly increase the risk for breast cancer. The possible effects on the daughters of women who were given DES while pregnant are still being studied.
A woman being overweight or obese after menopause can increase a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer. Studies have indicated that after menopause the risk increases for women who are overweight.
A physically inactive lifestyle may contribute to risks for breast cancer. If a woman is active it can prevent weight gain and obesity and therefore reduce chances for breast cancer.
Drinking alcohol increases risks for breast cancer. Studies indicate the more alcohol a woman drinks her risk for breast cancer increase.
Researchers are currently studying other possible risk factors for breast cancer. Currently being studied are the effect of diet, genetics, physical activity, and certain environmental substances increasing the risks for breast cancer.
Avoiding known risk factors for breast cancer can help women protect themselves against breast cancer. Risk factors for breast cancer such as family history cannot be avoided. These should be discussed with her doctor.
Most women who have known risk factors do not get breast cancer. Many women with breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease. Most women with breast cancer have no clear sign for risk factors other than growing older.
If a woman thinks she is at risk for breast cancer she should discuss her concern with her doctor. Her doctor may be able to suggest ways she can reduce her risk. At risk or not, a woman should plan scheduled checkups with her health care provider. Prevention is the best cure.