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13 Breast Cancer Risk Factors

A risk factor tells a person about his/her chance of acquiring a disease. However, it is not always necessary that the person will develop the illness, like in the case of breast cancer. As per a top oncologist in Mumbai, many women with one or more breast cancer risk factors do not develop it.

So why is it important? Well, knowing one’s risk towards a disease helps to screen for it and detect it early in case it does occur. Breast cancer risk factors can be of the following types:

  • Inherent or unchangeable
  • Environmental
  • Behavioural

Let’s take a look at 13 Breast Cancer Risk Factors:

1. Gender

Breast cancer affects more women than men (yes, breast cancer does happen in men too). This is attributed to the higher levels of female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, in women, which can trigger cancerous cell growth in the breasts.

2. Age

Risk of breast cancer increases with age, say over the age of 40 or 55 and more.

3. Genetics

A small percentage of breast cancer cases develop from heredity, i.e. genetic defects or mutations in certain genes that get passed from one generation to another in a family. Research on breast cancer has identified specific genes that are altered in breast cancer patients, the most common one being the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. In normal conditions, the two genes actually prevent cancer by producing proteins that inhibit abnormal cell proliferation.

It is seen that breast cancers that result from mutated genes occur more frequently in younger women, and these women are also prone to developing other forms of cancer such as ovarian cancer.

Other less commonly occurring mutated genes that increase breast cancer risk are ATM, TP53, CHEK2, PTEN, CDH1, STK11, and PALB2 genes.

4. History of breast cancer in family

Women with close relatives who have had or have breast cancer are at higher risk. The risk is double-fold in women with first-degree relations like sister, mother or daughter with breast cancer, and three-fold risk with second-degree relations like cousins, aunts, etc.

5. Previous personal history of breast cancer

The risk of redeveloping breast cancer in the other breast or a different area of the same breast is high in a woman who has already had the cancer once.

6. Dense breast tissue

A breast consists of fibrous, glandular and fatty tissue. A woman with dense breast tissue has a higher proportion of fibrous and glandular tissues and less of fatty tissue. This increases the risk of breast cancer. Dense breast tissue can result from certain medications, age (nearing menopause), pregnancy and genes.

7. Ethnicity

African-American women are at a higher risk of breast cancer as compared to women of Asian, Hispanic and Native American descent.

8. Benign breast ailments

Breast conditions of benign nature increase the risk of breast cancer. Common are the non-proliferative lesions – These may only slightly affect the risk of breast cancer. Conditions include

  • Fibrosis or cysts, periductal fibrosis
  • Mild hyperplasia
  • Non-sceloring adenosis
  • Benign phyllodes tumour
  • Ductal ectasia
  • Papilloma
  • Fat necrosis
  • Epithelial calcifications
  • Benign tumours like lipoma, hemangioma, neurofibroma, hamartoma, adenomyoepthelioma

9. Early Menstrual Periods

Women who started menstruating at an early age (before 12) and/or undergo menopause late (after 55) are exposed to oestrogen and progesterone longer, and thus are at a slightly higher risk.

10. Bearing Children

Women with no children or has had children after the age of 30 seem to increase the risk of breast cancer.

11. Alcohol 

Alcohol increases the risk of developing breast cancer in women, and risk increases with the amount consumed.

12. Being Overweight or Obese

Overweight women tend to produce oestrogen from fat tissue and their high insulin levels together make them prone to breast cancer.

13. Hormone therapy

Hormone replacement therapy, like that given during menopause, is one of the breast cancer risk factors.

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