Anything that affects your chances of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Certain risk factors are linked to certain conditions, such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, of the approximately 200,000 women in the United States that are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, not all will have the same risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetimes. Some women will have certain risk factors which will increase the likelihood that they will develop breast cancer over others.
However, just because you have a risk factor—or multiple risk factors—does not mean that you are going to end up with breast cancer. In fact, many women who have one or more risk factors never get breast cancer. On the other hand, many cases of breast cancer occur in women with no apparent risk factors. The biggest advantage in recognizing women at risk for developing breast cancer lies in the ability to identify those individuals who may benefit most from screening and preventative measures. After all, there are some risk factors that can be modified. The following are some of the risk factors that are associated with the development of breast cancer:
Your risk of developing breast cancer increases as you get older. About two-thirds of breast cancers are found in women older than 55 years of age.
Family history of breast cancer.
Breast cancer risk is higher among women whose immediate blood relatives have the disease.
If you have one first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer, then your risk of getting breast cancer is approximately doubled. Having two first-degree relatives increases your risk about 3-times more than normal.
About 5% to 10% of the time, breast cancer is the result of genetic defects which are inherited from a parent. The most common of these are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations. Women with this form of hereditary mutation tend to develop breast cancer at a younger age than average. These cancers also more often involve both breasts and are associated with the development of cancer in other organs, such as the ovaries.
Not all breast cancer is family related though. Of all women who get breast cancer, 85% do not have a family history of the disease.
A woman who has already had cancer in one breast is 3- to 4- times more likely to develop a new cancer in the other breast. This is one of the strongest risk factors for breast cancer development.
Dense breast tissue
Women with dense breast tissue have more glandular tissue and less fatty tissue, and have a higher risk of breast cancer. Unfortunately, the dense breast tissue also makes it harder for doctors to see abnormalities on mammograms.
Women who started menstruating at an early age (the average age is 12) and/or experienced menopause at a later age (average age 55) have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. This may again be related to the increased levels of estrogen in these patients.
Women who have had no children (Nulliparous) have a mildly higher risk of breast cancer than the general population. In contrast, women who have had many pregnancies show a reduced breast cancer risk. This is probably because pregnancy reduces the total number of menstrual cycles throughout life, which means less unbalanced estrogen exposure.
Oral Contraceptive Use
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. Once the pills are stopped, the risk decreases, reaching normal levels after about 10 years.
Being Overweight or Obese
Your body’s fat tissue produces estrogen. When women enter menopause, the ovaries slowly stop making estrogen. Most of the estrogen production then shifts from the ovaries to the fat tissue. The more fat you have, the more estrogen you will produce. This will increase your chances of developing breast cancer.
If you notice, there is one main theme that is linked to all the major breast cancer risk factors: Estrogen. Just being a woman itself is a risk factor for developing breast cancer. Both men and women have breast tissue; women just have more because they are exposed to more estrogen and progesterone. In fact, men can also develop breast cancer, and male breast cancer accounts for 1% of all breast cancers diagnosed annually.
So, do you have any breast cancer risk factors? Do you know anyone with breast cancer risk factors? Remember, risk factors or not, all women should speak with their doctors’ about breast cancer screening, and ways to lower your breast cancer risk factors if present.