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Risk Factors 2017-05-29T21:38:52+00:00

Tips on staying healthy and reducing your risks for developing breast cancer.

Breast cancer researchers have identified certain characteristics, usually called risk factors, which influence a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. Despite the identified risks for developing the disease, there are many women who develop breast cancer without any known risk factors beyond just being female and/or aging. On the other hand, not every woman with an identified risk factor will develop breast cancer. There are many complex factors associated with a woman developing breast cancer. American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010) have identified both biological and lifestyle factors that increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.

Biological Factors:

Being a woman – women get breast cancer about 100 times more than males.

Getting older – risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. Median age is 61 for the general female population, but younger in African American and Hispanic women.

Being younger when you had your first menstrual period – before the age of 12.

Starting menopause at a later age – after age 55.

Personal history of breast cancer or some non-cancerous breast diseases – Previous breast cancer, in addition to, DCIS and LCIS (non-invasive breast cancer) increases your risk of developing invasive breast cancer.

Family history of breast cancer (mother, sister, daughter) – ACS estimates a first degree relative increases your changes by as much as 20 -30% for developing breast cancer.

Having changes in the breast cancer-related genes BRCA1 or BRCA2 – If you have inherited a mutated copy of either gene from a parent, you have a high risk of developing breast cancer during your lifetime. The risk may be as high as 80% for members of some families with BRCA mutations. These cancers tend to occur in younger women and are more often bilateral (in both breasts) than cancers in women who are not born with one of these gene mutations.


Race and ethnicity – Caucasian women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but African American women are more likely to die from the disease.

Dense breast tissue – these women often have more glandular tissue and are at a higher risk of breast cancer. Also, having dense breast tissue makes it harder to see masses on mammograms.

Certain benign breast conditions – conditions that may accelerate the growth of cells in the breast.

Treatment with radiation therapy to the breast/chest – radiation treatment to the chest between ages 10 and 40 increases risk of developing breast cancer.

Diethylstilbestrol exposure – Given to pregnant women in the 1940s – 1970s to decrease the risk of miscarriage. The women are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. The children of these women are still being tested for breast cancer risk.

Lifestyle Factors:

Being older at the birth of your first child – first child after age 30 have a slightly higher breast cancer risk, however, your age and family history also plays a role in your level of added risk.

Never giving birth – Pregnancy reduces a woman’s total number of lifetime menstrual cycles, which may be the reason for this effect.

Not breastfeeding – Some studies suggest that breast-feeding may slightly lower breast cancer risk, especially if breast-feeding is continued for 1½ to 2 years.

Being overweight or obese (increases risk for breast cancer after menopause) – the risk appears to be increased for women who gained 22 lbs or more after menopause, but may not be an added risk among those who have been overweight since childhood. The risk decreases when a healthy weight is maintained after menopause.

Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy (estrogen and progesterone combined)

Using birth control pills, also called oral contraceptives – these women have a slightly greater risk of developing breast cancer than women who have never used them, however, the risk declines back to normal risk, with time, once the pills are stopped. By 10 years from stopping the pill, there is no longer an increased risk for developing breast cancer.

Drinking alcohol (more than one drink a day) – women who consume 1 alcoholic drink a day have a very small increase in risk. Those who have 2 to 5 drinks daily have about 1½ times the risk of women who do not drink alcohol.

Physical inactivity – In one study from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) as little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking reduced a woman’s risk by 18%. Walking 10 hours a week reduced the risk a little more. The American Cancer Society recommends 45 to 60 minutes of intentional physical activity 5 or more days a week to reduce your risk of breast cancer.

Socio-economic Status (SES) and breast cancer risk

Women with low SES have greater exposure to many of the known risk factors for the disease including inadequate housing, poisonous environmental toxins, misinformation, and unemployment with lower rates of medical coverage (Long, 1993; Moormeier, 1996). Early diagnosis is also complicated by women with less education and lower incomes being the most uninsured or underinsured for appropriate medical care (Ashing-Giwa & Ganz, 1997). When these women did receive medical care, they were more likely to have a poor relationship with the doctor and have incomplete medical records, which could influence obtaining early, effective treatment and ultimately survival. In addition, SES is confounded with ethnicity. For instance, African Americans comprise 13% of the population and make up about 33% of the people living in poverty. Moormeier (1996) reported that, even with SES considered, African American women with breast cancer sought medical attention for breast symptoms later than Caucasian women. African American women delayed acknowledgement of their illness and delayed health seeking behaviors citing financially related responsibilities of providing care and resources to their families.