A risk factor, in any sense, is something that increases the chances of something else happening. In the case of breast cancer, a risk factor would be something that increases your risk of getting the disease. But please don’t misunderstand, having a one or more of them doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer. While it is true that you can’t change certain risk factors, such as aging and family history, there are ones you can, and should, control.
Lifestyle-related risk factors involve personal behaviors and are, therefore, within your control. How often do you eat fast food? How often do you imbibe alcoholic beverages? Do you exercise more than just once or twice a week? The answers to these and several other questions can have much to do with your breast cancer risk.
Here are the most common risk factors:
Alcohol – There is a clear link between drinking alcohol and an increased risk of developing breast cancer. The risk increases the more you drink. Women who have one drink a day have a small increase in risk, but those who have two to five drinks a day are one and a half times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who don’t drink. Excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of other cancers too.
Excess Body Weight – Being overweight or obese after menopause increases a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer. After menopause, most of a woman’s estrogen comes from fat tissue (the ovaries stop making estrogen after menopause). More fat tissue after menopause means more fat tissue, which means more estrogen, which raises your risk.
Exercise – According to research-based evidence, physical activity in the form of exercise reduces breast cancer risk. While different studies have different recommendations as to the amount of exercise, the American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity throughout each week.
Pregnancy – Interestingly, women who have not had children or who had their first child after the age of 30 have a slightly higher risk than those who became pregnant and had kids at earlier ages.
Birth Control – While research is still being conducted in this area, any hormone-related birth control method, such as oral contraceptives and the birth control shot, is considered to increase a woman’s risk of developing cancer.
Postmenopausal Hormone Therapy – Hormone therapy with estrogen (often combined with progesterone) may be used to help relieve menopause symptoms and ward off osteoporosis, however these therapies are associated with an increased breast cancer risk.
Unavoidable Risk Factors
There are unfortunately risk factors for breast cancer that you can’t do anything about. First, being a woman. Breast cancer is much more likely to develop in women than men, so, if you are woman, there is already a level of risk. But remember, just having one or several risk factors does not guarantee that you’ll get cancer.
Age is another unavoidable risk factor. The older you get, the more your risk increases. That’s just the way that one goes. It is important to note, however, that age increases the risk of several health issues and diseases.
Mutations in particular genes, particularly BRCA1 and BRCA2, can also increase a person’s risk. Around five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, as a result of certain gene defects.
Additional risk factors include breast tissue density (women with dense breasts potentially have a two times greater risk than those with average breast density) and race and ethnicity (some races and ethnicities have higher incidence of breast cancer than others).