Fact-Checked By : Dr. Tara Scott, OB-GYN
Most women—both young and old—know at least one person who has had breast cancer. That’s because about one in eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer during her life. Due to the frequency of this illness, women are raised to consider breast cancer a top priority on their health concerns list.
Around age 20 women should start to do self-breast exams, looking for any signs that might suggest a serious issue. You should do this self-exam at the same time every month after you’ve finished your menstrual cycle.
Despite all of this awareness, there’s still a lot of mysticism surrounding risk factors for breast cancer. Here are the major risk factors for breast cancer and how you can mitigate some of the risks.
What You Can’t Change
Much like in other areas of life, some of the major risk factors you’ll face aren’t within your power to control. That being said, if you’re aware that you're predisposed to breast cancer, you’re more likely to take the necessary precautions to catch it early. Keep a close eye on your health if you identify with one or more of these risks.
Age is just the passing of time, but it can also heighten your risk of breast cancer. According to the CDC, most breast cancer is diagnosed in women over 50. It’s also important to note the age that you started your period and/or menopause. Women who started their periods before age 12 are at a higher risk due to longer exposure to hormones. This is also true if you didn’t start menopause until after the age of 55 for the same reasons.
Thankfully, identifying genetic risk factors has come a long way. Nowadays, if you have a significant family history of breast cancer, you’re able to do genetic testing to see if you’ve inherited certain mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These panels can tell you if you have >10 genes including BRCA1 to fully understand your risk factor. Some women with these mutations opt to have their breasts removed because they have up to a 72% risk of a breast cancer diagnosis during their lifetime.
As far as genetics go, it’s also important to consider whether breast or ovarian cancer runs in your family—including men if they’re a first-degree relation. You can’t change who you’re related to, but you can make sure you’re regularly checking for signs of cancer.
Your Body’s History:
If your breasts are made up of more connective tissue than fatty tissue, you run a higher risk of eventually having breast cancer. If you’ve already had breast cancer, no matter if you have dense tissue or not, you’re statistically more likely to be diagnosed with it again.
Other Medical History:
Women who have undergone radiation therapy to their breasts or the surrounding chest area run a higher risk if this was done before age 30. Also, women who took diethylstilbestrol for reproductive purposes between 1940 and 1971 run a higher risk of breast cancer as well as their offspring.
What You Can Change
Although there are a lot of aspects you can’t change when it comes to risk factors, there are some you do have power over. For example, by maintaining a healthy weight and being active, especially after menopause, you reduce your risk of breast cancer.
You also have control over your reproductive plans. Some medications, like oral birth control, can increase your chances of breast cancer, so talk to your doctor about other alternatives. Finally, monitoring your alcohol consumption will decrease your chances of having breast cancer. So, remember to have fun in moderation.
Staying On Top Of It With Your OB-GYN:
By doing self-exams and being diligent about seeing your OB-GYN for all of your female health concerns, you can help ensure that any foreign tissue is identified and treated early. Even if your schedule’s very busy, making time for your annual appointment could save your life. In between your appointments, continue to monitor yourself for any changes in your breasts, especially if you identify with any of the risk factors on this list.