Womens Health

Breast Cancer - Who Is Most At Risk?

Understanding the risk factors for breast cancer can help you to evaluate if you are at an increased risk for the disease. Should you have several of these risk factors, you may want to discuss your options with your doctor in order to try to prevent breast cancer. It is not a given, however, that you will develop the disease just because you have some of the risk factors. Some risk factors cannot be changed, while others can; the more aware you are of the risks, the more able you will be to be vigilant and aware about breast cancer.

Your Age

Unfortunately, there are some risk factors that you can't change. Your chance of developing breast cancer increases as you get older. Nearly 80% of breast cancers happen in women who are 50 or over.

Family History

If you have a female member of your family who has had breast cancer, ovarian cancer or both, you have a greater risk for developing breast cancer. Your risk increases with the number of close relatives that you have who have gotten breast cancer before menopause. Although your risk increases, most of these cancers are not inherited and are not linked to a specific defective gene. Only 5-10% of breast cancers are inherited. In addition, if you've already had breast cancer in one breast, you are at greater risk for developing it in the other breast.

Your Body

The longer that you had your period throughout your life, the higher risk you are for developing breast cancer. This means that you are at a higher risk if you started your period before the age of 12 and if you entered menopause later, after 55. Researchers believe that the prolonged exposure to estrogen may increase your chances of having issues with your breasts. At the same time, if you never had children, or you had your first child after 30, you have an increased risk for breast cancer.


There are certain medicines that can also increase your risk for breast cancer. Hormone combination therapies with estrogen and progesterone can increase your risk, if you took them for four years or more. These therapies can, as well, make malignant tumors more difficult to detect on mammograms and can lead to later detection of breast cancer. If you only used estrogen by itself as a hormone replacement, there isn't an increased risk. Another medicine to examine is birth control pills. Studies have found an association between the use of birth control pills for over four years before a full term pregnancy and breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer for birth control users appears, however, to be quite small. Within five to ten years of stopping the pill, these risk factors return to normal for those women.

Lifestyle Choices

This is one area that you can control. You run a higher risk if you are overweight. This risk appears to be the highest if you gained weight as a teenager or if you put on the extra weight after menopause. The risk is also higher if the extra weight is centered in the upper part of the body. Smoking is another lifestyle choice that puts you at a higher risk for breast cancer. This issue is still under a great deal of review, but smoking and second hand smoke have been correlated to increased risk. Finally, those who drink more than one alcoholic drink a day increase their risk by 20% compared to those who don't drink at all.


One final risk factor is your race. White women have a higher rate of breast cancer than do black, Hispanic or Asian women. However, even though they have a lower percentage of women with cancer, black women die more from the disease because of late detection. This is thought to be due to economic status and education. Lower income women, in general, die more often from breast cancer because they have less screenings, less routine medical care and less education about these issues.

Understanding your risk can help you to become more educated about breast cancer. While you can't control many of these risk factors, it is certainly in your best interest to control the ones that you can, and to be vigilant about your health and your screenings if you are at a higher risk.


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