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What are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 17, 2024
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Risk factors to determine who might get breast cancer are divided into three general categories: preventable, unpreventable, and unproven. Preventable risk factors are those that can be changed, such as losing weight or using hormone therapy. Unpreventable factors include age, race, and a family history of the disease. Uncertain risk factors for breast cancer are those still being studied with no clear consensus from the medical community. Risk factors alone do not mean a woman will or will not develop breast cancer.

Obesity and alcohol abuse are preventable risk factors for breast cancer. If a woman loses weight and limits alcohol intake, her risk of developing breast cancer may diminish. The use of oral contraceptives, and hormone replacement therapy after menopause, are also linked to increased risk of developing breast cancer. Those who are physically active and women who breastfeed may reduce their risk. Lifestyle changes are often suggested for women who have unpreventable risk factors for breast cancer.

As a woman ages, her risk of getting breast cancer increases, which is one of several unpreventable risk factors for breast cancer. Most breast cancer is found in women over the age of 55. If there is a family history of breast cancer, the risk becomes greater, and some women inherit genes that are considered risk factors for breast cancer. In addition, some benign conditions of the breast, including dense tissue, are considered risks.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the most common hereditary causes of breast cancer. When either of these genes mutate, they increase the chance of developing cancer of the breast. Women who inherit these genes from either parent also have a higher risk of other types of cancers, such as ovarian cancer. BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations occur in various racial and ethnic groups.

A woman’s reproductive history is also related to risk factors for breast cancer. Those who begin menstruation before the age of 12, and start menopause after age 55, might be more prone to develop breast cancer. Women who bear their first child later in life may also experience increased risk. The risk lessens for each full-term birth, and for those who breastfeed their offspring.

Unproven risk factors are those steeped in controversy with no definitive facts to support them. Some studies have shown that diet and vitamins play a role in breast cancer risk. The use of antiperspirants containing specific chemicals, and environmental chemical use, are also uncertain risk factors. Other studies have examined breast implants and abortion as potential risk factors for breast cancer.

Symptoms of breast cancer vary. Sometimes lumps are noticed, or a change in the appearance of the skin is observed. A breast self-exam can detect early signs of breast cancer, and mammograms are recommended for all women over 40. When breast cancer is found early, the chance of full recovery is greater.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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