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Wellness & Prevention

Reducing your risk is key to maintaining breast health 

No cancer can be prevented. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing the disease or catch it early. Be aware of risk factors and watch for signs and symptoms of the disease.

Risk factors

When it comes to risk factors for breast cancer, there are some that you can control because they are lifestyle choices, but there are also some you cannot.

Risks factors out of your control

  • Being female. While breast cancer can occur in men, it is about 100 times more common in women. This is likely due to women having more of the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which can promote breast cancer cell growth.

  • Age. About one out of eight invasive breast cancers are found in women younger than 45. About two of three invasive breast cancers are found in women age 55 or older.

  • Genetics. About five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary. The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is an inherited mutation in what are called the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. When normal, these genes help prevent cancer by making proteins that keep cells from growing abnormally. If mutated, your risk of developing cancer in your lifetime heightens. Genetic testing can be done to look for these mutations. 

  • Early menstruation/late menopause. Beginning your period before the age of 12 or experiencing menopause after age 55 increases your chance of developing breast cancer. This may be due to exposure to hormones over a greater length of time.

  • Family history. If an immediate family (mother, sister, or daughter) has had breast cancer, this can nearly double your risk of developing the disease. Having two first-degree relatives have the disease increases your risk nearly three-fold. Saying that, it is estimated that more than 85 percent of women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease.

  • Race and ethnicity. Overall white women are more likely to develop breast cancer. However, in women under age 45, African-American women are more likely to develop the disease.

  • Dense breast tissue. Women with dense breasts as seen on a mammogram have a higher risk of developing breast cancer than women with less dense breasts. Dense breast tissue can also make mammograms less accurate.

  • Lobular carcinoma in situ. Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) means that cells looking like cancer cells are growing in the lobules of the milk-producing glands of the breast. However, they do not grow through the wall of the lobules keeping it from being called an invasive cancer. Women with this condition have a seven to 11-fold increased risk of developing invasive breast cancer.

  • DES exposure. From the 1940s through the 1960s, some pregnant women were given diethylstilbestrol (DES) because it was believed to lower the chances of miscarriage. Those exposed to this drug may have a slight increased risk of developing breast cancer.

Risk factors you can control

  • Late childbearing or no childbearing. Women who have had no children or had their first child after age 30 have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. In contrast, having multiple children reduces your risk of developing breast cancer, possibly because of protective hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy.

  • Birth control. Studies have revealed that women using oral contraceptives may have a slightly greater risk of breast cancer than women who have never used them. This risk seems to go back to normal over time once the pills are discontinued.

  • Hormone therapy after menopause. Women using both estrogen and progesterone as a combined therapy after menopause have an increased risk of getting breast cancer and may have an increased chance of dying from the disease. However, should the combined hormone therapy stop, a woman's risk returns to that of the general population within five years.  

  • Heavy drinking. While the occasional alcoholic drink is okay, consuming more than two drinks per day increases your chances of developing breast cancer. Women who consume two to five drinks each day are about 1-1/2 times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who don’t drink.

  • Smoking, especially at a young age. Studies have suggested that long-term heavy smoking can increase your risk of breast cancer.

  • Being overweight. General obesity has been associated with increased breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women. But the amount of weight gained in adult life is a greater predictor of breast cancer risk than weight alone, according to a study from Morehead State University in Kentucky. Their researchers found that women who gained more than 60 pounds between age 20 and menopause had a roughly 70 percent higher risk of breast cancer, compared with women who gained fewer than 20 pounds. There was a four percent increase in risk for each 11 pounds gained as an adult.

  • Lack of physical activity. Exercise is good for you. A study from the Women's Health Initiative indicated that as little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking reduced a woman's risk of breast cancer by 18 percent.

Signs and symptoms

Screening mammograms are often successful in detecting cancer before symptoms have a chance to develop. However, not every breast cancer can be found by mammograms so it is important to know the signs and symptoms.

  • Lump or mass. A mass can be painless and hard with irregular edges or tender, soft and round.

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast

  • Skin irritation or dimpling

  • Breast or nipple pain

  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)

  • Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin

  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)