Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

Many women are scared of developing breast cancer.  It is important to understand the risk factors involved in breast cancer, and to evaluate if you are at increased risk for developing the disease.  Should you exhibit several of these risk factors, you may want to discuss your preventative options with your doctor, or have additional screenings for breast cancer.  However, you should not assume that you will develop the disease just because you have some of the risk factors.  Some risk factors, such as your age and your family history, can't be changed.  Others, including your diet and your lifestyle, can be.

Age as a Risk for Breast Cancer

As with any cancer, your chances for developing breast cancer do increase with age.  Nearly 80% of breast cancers occur in women over 50.

Personal and Family History

If you have already experienced breast cancer in one breast, this does put you at an increased risk for developing cancer in the other breast.  If you have a female family member who has had breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or both you do have a greater risk for developing the disease.  Your risk increases with the number of relatives that you have, of close relation, who have developed breast cancer before menopause.  Most of these cancers, however, are not inherited or linked to a specific defective gene.  Only between five and ten percent of breast cancers are inherited.  The defect is usually present on one of several genes, especially BRCA1 or BRCA2.

Reproductive Issues

If you got your period at an early age, particularly before the age of 12, you may have a greater risk for developing breast cancer.  Ironically, if you enter menopause at a late age, after 55, you are also more likely to develop the disease.  Both of these are due to the prolonged exposure that your breast tissue experiences to estrogen.  Similarly, if you never have children, or you don't have your first child until after age 30, you also have an increased risk of breast cancer.  


Certainly medications can increase your risk of developing the disease.  If you've treated symptoms of menopause with hormone combinations such as estrogen and progesterone for four years or more, you have an increased risk.  It's also important to note that these therapies can make malignant tumors harder to detect on mammograms, and can lead to later detection of breast cancer.  However, if you've only used estrogen as a hormone replacement, you do not have an increased risk of problems.  There is still more research to be done on birth control pills as a risk factor for breast cancer.  Studies have associated the long term use of birth control pills (defined as using pills for four or more years before their first full-term pregnancy) with breast cancer.  In general, the risk of breast cancer for birth control users seems to be small and confined to the short term.  These risk levels return to normal levels within five to ten years after stopping the pill.

Lifestyle Choices

While many risk factors for breast cancer can't be controlled, your lifestyle choices can be.  You do run a higher risk if you are overweight.  The risk seems to be highest if you've gained the weight as a teenager or if you put on extra weight after menopause.  Similarly, the risk is higher if the extra weight is in the upper part of your body.  Similarly, there does seem to be a correlation between smoking and increased breast cancer risk.  This issue is still being studied a great deal, but even second hand smoke has been shown to cause some extra risk.  Finally, women who drink more than one alcoholic drink a day seem to increase their risk of breast cancer by about 20% in comparison to those who don't drink at all.  


Finally, white women develop breast cancer at a higher rate than do black, Hispanic or Asian women.  However, more black women die from the disease because their cancers are often found at a more advanced stage. 

Knowing the risk factors for breast cancer can help you to determine if you are at higher risk than the general population.  While you can't control all of the risk factors, there are certain ones that you can try to deal with and to eliminate.  Speak with your doctor if you are at particularly high risk for developing the disease to see what you can do to decrease your chances of breast cancer.

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