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There is really no way to know for sure if you’re going to get breast cancer, though certain risk factors can make it more likely. However, having one or more risk factors does not necessarily mean that you will get breast cancer. In fact, you can have all the risk factors and never get breast cancer, or you can have no known risk factors and still get the disease.
If you agree with any of the following bolded statements, you may be at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Some risk factors are out of your control, such as your age or family history. Others, like drinking one or more alcoholic drinks a day or taking hormones, are factors you can control.
Each time you agree with a statement, ask yourself if you are doing all that you can to control that particular risk factor. It may seem difficult, but your efforts can have a big payoff in terms of your health and quality of life. Ask your doctors and loved ones to help think of ways that you can lower your risk for breast cancer.
Know that researchers are continuing to study some of these factors to determine how much they can increase your risk for breast cancer. In some cases, more studies are needed to confirm the link to breast cancer.
Both men and women can get breast cancer. But most of the cases occur in women. Being a woman is the main risk factor for breast cancer.
Age is your next biggest risk factor. The older you are, the more likely you will get the disease. In fact, most breast cancers are found in women older than age 55. Though you can’t do anything to reduce this risk factor, as you get older, you can avoid those risk factors that are in your control.
If you’ve had cancer in one breast, you’re at an increased risk of getting it in the other breast. Keep all your follow-up appointments with your doctor and have yearly mammograms.
If any female relative in your family (including your grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, or daughter) has had breast cancer, you have a higher risk of getting it, too. Your risk doubles if the woman is your mother, sister, or daughter. And it’s even higher if your relative had cancer in both breasts or it was diagnosed before she went through menopause. Some research has shown a genetic link between women in the same family who have breast cancer. If breast cancer runs in your family, you can have genetic testing to find out if you have that abnormal gene. If you do, you can explore options to help prevent the disease. But just because you have the abnormal gene doesn’t mean you’ll get breast cancer. Therefore, it’s best to have genetic counseling first to know whether or not to get tested and to know what to do after testing. Some women choose to have one or both breasts surgically removed. Removing a healthy breast as a preventive measure is called a prophylactic mastectomy. Since surgery carries its own set of risks, talk this option over carefully with your doctor before making a decision.
There are two kinds of benign breast disease: nonproliferative and proliferative. Nonproliferative benign breast disease does not increase your risk for breast cancer. But if you have proliferative benign breast disease, your risk for breast cancer increases. Proliferative benign breast disease is an overgrowth of cells lining the ducts or lobules. If the multiplying cells look like normal breast tissue cells, your risk only increases by 1.5 to 2 times. If the cells look abnormal (called atypia), then your risk increases by 3.5 to 5 times. The only way to know if you have benign breast disease is by having a biopsy.
If you’re older than age 30 and you’ve never given birth to a child, you have a slightly higher risk of getting breast cancer. Some evidence shows that your risk decreases the more children you have and the closer in age you have them. However, because so many factors should be considered before having a baby, you may be better off focusing on the other risk factors that you can control.
HRT involves taking the hormones estrogen or progesterone, or a combination of the two. If you have taken combination HRT for two or more years to relieve postmenopausal symptoms, you may have a greater chance of getting breast cancer. And the longer you’ve taken them, the higher your risk. The good news is that if you stop taking the drugs, your risk should go back down to normal after five years. Estrogen alone, which may be given to women who no longer have a uterus, does not appear to raise your risk much, if at all, unless it is taken for a long time (for more than 10 years). Talk with your doctor about how to gradually stop taking HRT. This will help lessen the side effects that can occur if you stop suddenly.
Researchers think that the longer your breast tissue is exposed to estrogen, the more likely it is that you will get breast cancer. If you’re menstruating it means your ovaries are still producing estrogen, a hormone that increases your risk for breast cancer. Therefore, the longer you have been having your period, the higher your risk.
If you have ever been exposed to high-dose radiation in your chest area, you have an increased chance of getting breast cancer. This may be true if you were treated for Hodgkin disease, took part in certain tuberculosis studies, or lived near the site of an atomic blast. And the risk may be even higher if the exposure happened when you were a child. It’s important to remember that this involves high doses of radiation. The small doses used for breast cancer screening, for example, do not increase your risk.
If you’re white, you have a higher risk of getting breast cancer than if you’re black, Asian, or Native American. But if you’re black, your risk of dying from the disease is higher than it is for white women. Studies also show that when women from low-risk countries move to a high-risk area (like the United States), their risk for breast cancer goes up. This probably means that environment and lifestyle factors matter more than the genetics of these groups in determining risk.
This risk factor is complex. That’s because research shows conflicting results about the link between weight and breast cancer. Overall, your risk of getting breast cancer is lower if you maintain a healthy weight with a body mass index below 25. If you’re overweight and you do get breast cancer, the excess weight also affects your chances of being cured. Most doctors say it’s better to maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, ask your doctor or a nutritionist for tips on how to get more exercise and eat fewer calories so you can shed pounds. Make an effort to avoid gaining weight after menopause.
Studies show that taking birth control pills slightly increases your breast cancer risk compared with women who have never used them. The risk seems to go back to normal over time after the pills are stopped, and women who stopped using birth control pills more than 10 years ago have not been found to have any increased breast cancer risk. Talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of taking oral contraceptive pills.
Studies show that your risk for breast cancer goes up if you drink just one glass of wine or beer or one mixed drink a day. Studies have also shown that the more you drink, the greater your risk. If you do drink, limit yourself to less than one drink per day. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may want to limit your intake even more.
Physical inactivity is another lifestyle factor linked to many cancers, including breast cancer. Getting regular exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which may be particularly helpful in decreasing your risk for breast cancer after menopause.
Saturated fat is the kind of fat found in animal products like meat, cheese, eggs, many fried foods, and junk food. Some research has shown a link between eating a diet high in this type of fat and an increased risk of getting breast cancer. However, it’s not clear whether the risk is from the fat or the extra calories in these foods. And other research has shown that foods high in unsaturated fat, like olive oil, fish, and nuts, may actually help protect you from getting breast cancer. More research is needed. In the meantime, it can’t hurt to cut back on foods high in saturated fat while increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, which have been shown to protect against cancer.
Women whose breasts appear on mammograms to have larger areas of dense tissue compared to mammograms of women of the same age are at increased risk for breast cancer.
DES is a drug that was given to some pregnant women in the U.S. between about 1940 and 1971 to help prevent miscarriage. (It is no longer used.) Women who took DES during pregnancy may have a slightly increased risk for breast cancer. Women whose mothers took DES during pregnancy may also have a slightly higher risk.