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Breast Cancer Risk Factors


To predict when and in whom breast cancer will strike, scientists must often think like detectives, looking for clues to signal which women may be more likely than others to develop the disease. These clues are called "risk factors".

To identify risk factors, scientists continually examine various trends and patterns among women worldwide who are diagnosed with the disease. Age, individual and family medical history, reproductive history, genetic alterations, race, economic status, neighborhood and workplace exposures to pollutants and lifestyle habits are all examples of the factors that can be evaluated.

This information tells a scientific story that helps experts predict with some certainty a woman's odds for developing breast cancer. It's important to note, however, that this is not an exact science and that such predictions are not definite.

Having one or two of these risk factors doesn't mean a woman will develop breast cancer (seven out of ten breast cancers occur in women with non of the important risk factors, other than simply being a woman). But knowing her personal risk factor profile and understanding what it means will help her and her doctor plan a course of action that may reduce her chances of ever getting the disease or, at least, to detect in its earliest, most treatable stages.

The Most Common Risk Factors

Age: The risk of breast cancer increases as a woman grows older. About 82 percent of breast cancers occur in women age 60 and older. The risk is especially high for women age 60 and older. Breast cancer is uncommon in women younger than age 35.

Personal History: Women who have had breast cancer and women with a history of breast disease (not cancer, but a condition that may predispose them to cancer) may develop it again.

Family History: The risk of getting breast cancer increases for a woman whose mother, sister, daughter, or two or more close relatives had the disease. It is important to know how old they were at the time they were diagnosed.

The Breast Cancer Genes: Some individuals, both women and men, may be born with an "alteration" (or change) in one of the two genes that are important for regulating breast cell growth. Individuals who inherit an alteration in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are at an "inherited" higher risk for breast cancer. They also may pass this alteration on to their children. It is very rare - scientists estimate that only about 5-10 percent of all breast cancer changes are likely to develop breast cancer. Women with a family history of breast cancer are encouraged to speak to a genetics counselor to determine the pros and cons of genetic testing.

Note: The next five risk factors all involve estrogen, a hormone that naturally occurs in every woman. At the time menstruation begins, women start to product larger amounts of estrogen and will continue to do so until they reach menopause. Estrogen appears to play a key role in breast cancer. Although estrogen doesn't actually cause breast cancer, it may stimulate the growth of cancer cells.

Estrogen-related risk factors are:

Having an Early First Period: Women who begin menstruating before age 12 are at increased risk of developing breast cancer. The more menstrual cycles a woman has over her lifetime, the more likely she is to get the disease.

Having a first pregnancy after age 25 or 30: Although early pregnancies may help lower the chances of getting breast cancer, particularly before the age of 25, these same hormonal changes after age 35 may contribute to the incidence of breast cancer.

Having no children: Women who experience continuous menstrual cycles until menopause are at a higher than average risk.

Use of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT): Based on the Women's Health Initiative Study (2002), women do appear to have an increased risk of breast cancer while they are on HRT and a short time thereafter, compared to those who have never used post-menopausal HRT. This is based on a study of 16,00 healthy post-menopausal women ages 50-79 who were taking either estrogen plus progestin as HRT, or a placebo (an inactive pill).

Use of Oral Contraceptives (OCs) and Breast Cancer: Current or former use of OCs among women ages 35 to 64 did not significantly increase the risk of breast cancer. Data also show that former OC use does not increase the risk of breast cancer later in life.

For additional information on risk factors, access the American Cancer Society website,, Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2004.

Information on this page has been, in large part, reproduced, with permission, from NBCAM (supported by an unrestricted educational grant from AstraZeneca Healthcare Foundation).





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