Cancer Risk Factors: What you Can & Can’t Control

What are your risks when it comes to breast cancer? The answer to this question looks different for everyone, and some are more at risk than others. And, while there are a few breast cancer prevention methods, a few of the breast cancer risk factors are entirely out of your control.

Here are a few of the most common risks for breast cancer, including the ones you can and can’t control. Plus, a few tips on how to prevent breast cancer where possible. But first, let’s consider how breast cancer forms.

How does breast cancer occur?

There are many different reasons why a person will get breast cancer; it could be a combination of lifestyle decisions, genes or the environment in which we live. 

In the 1940s, a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer was 5%. The risk is now up to 12%, or 1 in 8 women in the United States. In about half of the breast cancer cases, the woman has no known risk factors.

Breast cancer occurs when there is an abnormal growth of breast cells – these cells divide a lot faster than healthy cells and accumulate in a lump or mass. These cells may spread through your breast to your lymph nodes and other parts of your body.

Breast cancer risk factors you can’t change

Here are the most common breast cancer risk factors that you, unfortunately, can’t change. With these risk factors, early detection is critical.

Your gender

While men also get breast cancer, women are at a much higher risk. Women are 100 times more at risk of getting breast cancer than men.

What action you can take: Ensure you maintain a healthy body weight and build regular physical activity into your week.

Your age

As you get older, the risk of breast cancer increases, with most breast cancers found in women aged 55 and older.

For women between the ages of 40 to 50, there is a 1 in 68 chance of developing breast cancer. It increases to 1 in 42 among 50 to 60-year-olds, while women older than 70 years have a 1 in 26 chance of getting breast cancer.

What you can do: Book regular breast cancer screening exams and use monitoring devices like Celbrea® for a higher possibility of early detection of breast cancer. The earlier you detect any breast disease, the better your chances of recovery are.

Your family history

You won’t necessarily develop breast cancer if you have a family history of breast cancer and you don’t have to have a family history of breast cancer to get it. Still, if you have immediate relatives with a history of cancer, you are considered at higher risk. If your mother, sister or daughter has had breast cancer, your risk is almost doubled.

What you can do:  To confirm your family history of breast cancer is a risk factor, you may want to consult with a genetic counselor and get tested for breast cancer genes. Make sure to also inform your doctor of your family history. 

Your personal history of breast cancer

If you have had breast cancer in the past, your risk is higher to develop new cancer in the other breast or another part of the same breast. This is not seen as a recurrence but new breast cancer.

What to do: Ensure you adhere to your doctor’s instructions on monitoring your breast cancer. You may also want to consider consulting with a genetic counselor.

Your race and ethnicity

White and Black women are at higher risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime, while American Indian and Alaska Native women are on the lowest end of risk.

What to do: If your race or ethnicity places you at a higher risk category, go for regular breast screening.

Breast cancer risk factors you can prevent

The good news is that there are risk factors that you can change to lessen your risk of getting breast cancer.

Your weight

Many women are sensitive about their weight as they want to look good, but there is a more important reason to keep your weight down: your health. Breast cancer is worsened by being overweight or obese after menopause. 

After menopause, your ovaries stop making the female sex hormone called estrogen, and most estrogen comes from fat tissue. So, unfortunately, the more fat you have, the more estrogen you make, and estrogen feed some breast cancers, causing them to grow.

What you can do: Find a dietician who can help you work out a weight management plan. A Journal of the National Cancer Institute study found that women who lose weight after the age of 50, and keep it off, have a lower risk of breast cancer than women whose weight stays the same.

Drinking alcohol

Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can increase your risk of getting breast cancer. Women who have one alcoholic drink a day have a minimal increase in risk, compared with moderate drinkers (2 to 3 drinks a day) who have about a 20% higher risk.

Being inactive

The less you move, the higher your risk for breast cancer.

What you can do: Aim to stay physically active and decrease your chances of developing breast cancer and other diseases. The American Cancer Society recommends 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, or 75 to 150 minutes of more intense activity like running weekly.

Hormone intake

Birth control methods that use hormones such as oral contraceptives and birth control injections can increase breast cancer risk.
Using combined hormone therapy after menopause also increases the risk of developing breast cancer.
What to do: Consult with your doctor to find the correct and safest birth control for you to use.

Misconceptions on the causes of breast cancer

There are some misconceptions of what increases your risk of getting breast cancer; the below factors do not increase your risk:

  • Wearing underwire bras
  • Having an abortion or miscarriage
  • Having fibrocystic breast changes (dense breast tissue with benign cysts)
  • Being pregnant often
  • Drinking coffee

Breast cancer is daunting, and it is almost impossible to predict who will get breast cancer and who won’t. There are breast cancer risks that we can and can’t control. The key is to focus on the prevention efforts of those you can manage and proactively monitor those you can’t change.

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