During the past few decades, there have been significant advances in breast cancer research, diagnosis and treatment. As a result, breast cancer deaths declined by 43% between 1989 and 2020.
But breast cancer is still a formidable foe. While both men and women can get breast cancer, it mainly affects those who were born female. Breast cancer is responsible for 1 in 3 of all cancers diagnosed in U.S. women each year. The American Cancer Society projects that nearly 44,000 U.S. women will die from breast cancer in 2023.
During their lives, 13% of women — 1 in 8 — will develop breast cancer. While there‘s no foolproof way to avoid breast cancer, learning about breast cancer risk factors can help you be more proactive about your health and have more informed discussions with your health care providers.
Know the risk factors for breast cancer and protect yourself
Research shows that several environmental, lifestyle and hormonal factors can increase your risk of breast cancer. However, not everyone with risk factors gets breast cancer and people with no risk factors can develop the disease. Researchers are still trying to pinpoint why some people get breast cancer and others don’t.
Alcohol use can increase your risk of breast cancer
Although you don’t hear much about it, drinking alcohol has been linked to breast cancer since the 1980s. Experts estimate that alcohol consumption alone is responsible for 14,000 to 23,000 breast cancer cases each year. Even just one drink a day is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. Binge drinkers — people who drink four or more drinks in a couple of hours — have twice the risk of premenopausal breast cancer compared to people who don’t drink alcohol. So, while an occasional drink is likely OK, drinking in moderation — or even less — is critical.
Obesity can affect your risk of breast cancer
Keeping a healthy weight is an important way to reduce breast cancer risk, as excess weight in postmenopausal women increases risk of breast cancer. Weight gain can elevate levels of hormones, such as insulin and estrogen, which are linked to breast cancer. Interestingly, some studies show that people who have been overweight since childhood may be less at risk than those who gain weight when they are older.
Physical activity may affect your risk of breast cancer
Staying physically active may also help decrease your breast cancer risk. A 2016 analysis of 38 studies concluded that physically active women were 12% to 21% less likely to get breast cancer compared to less active people. So, try to get around 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week, along with strength training at least twice a week.
Using birth control may increase the risk of breast cancer
There’s some evidence that hormonal contraception, which includes birth control pills and IUDs that release hormones, increases the risk of breast cancer. But the risk is considered very small, and the benefits of having reliable contraception and other medical benefits of hormonal therapies may outweigh this specific risk. The risk decreases when women stop using contraceptives. A recent study determined that one additional breast cancer could be expected for every 7,690 women who use hormonal contraception for at least one year.
Breastfeeding may reduce the risk of breast cancer
Breastfeeding is thought to play a role in preventing breast cancer. The longer you breastfeed, the greater the protective effect. One report estimates that “the risk of breast cancer is reduced by 4.3% for every 12 months of breastfeeding.”
Breast cancer risk factors you can‘t do anything about
There’s nothing you can do to avoid some breast cancer risk factors, such as growing older or your genetic makeup. But just being aware of them can make a difference. For some people, risk-reducing medications may be an option.
Your age affects your risk of breast cancer
You’re more likely to get breast cancer if you’re 50 years old or older. According to the American Cancer Society, the median age of breast cancer diagnoses is 62. That means the same number of people are diagnosed with breast cancer before age 62 and after age 62.
There are other age-related milestones to look out for. You may be at a higher risk for breast cancer if you:
- Had your first period before the age of 12.
- Started menopause at an older age, such as the mid-50s.
- Had your first child after age 30.
Family history affects your risk of breast cancer
Most people diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease. According to doctors, only 5% to 10% of breast cancers are passed down in genes you got from your parents.
If your family does have a history of breast cancer or other cancers, you may want to visit a genetic counselor or breast specialist to help you quantify your risk. There are several inherited gene mutations — such as BRCA1 and BRCA 2 — that can significantly increase the likelihood that you will get breast cancer. You can ask your healthcare team questions about genetic counseling and genetic testing.
Having dense breasts can affect your risk of breast cancer
About half of women are told they have dense breasts after having a mammogram. This term describes the way the breast tissue looks on X-rays.
Breasts have three kinds of tissue: fibrous tissue, glandular tissue and fatty tissue. When women have a lot of glandular and fibrous tissue, it’s harder for doctors to see cancerous tumors on the mammogram. That increases the chance that breast cancer could be missed during screening. Dense breasts also increase the risk of breast cancer, though researchers aren’t certain why.
When you have dense breasts, you might need additional imaging.
The importance of breast cancer screening
While nobody likes to have medical tests like mammograms or MRIs, they are critical to diagnosing and treating breast cancer. Mammograms are quick and relatively easy. They are important even if you have small breasts or don’t have a family history of breast cancer.
With the help of early screening tools like mammograms, there are more than 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. today.
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