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What are the common risk factors for breast cancer?

To understand the risk factors causing breast cancer, let us first divide breast cancer into two broad groups:

  • Hereditary Breast Cancer: This is a topic by itself and a section has been dedicated to it. Click HERE for more details

  • Non hereditary breast cancer

The risk factors for non hereditary breast cancer can be described under the following headings:

  • Those that allow prolonged unopposed effect of estrogen on the breast

  • Non estrogen related factors

What are the 'non estrogen related' risk factors for developing breast cancer?

These can be enumerated as follows:

  • Gender: Breast cancer is much the more commoner in females. Out of every 100 cases of breast cancer, only 1 may be in a male.

  • Age: As the age increases, the chances of developing breast cancer increases. The usually has a peak, and keeps on changing over decades. presently it is seen that the peak is at around 40 to 60 years, and then decreases after 60 years of age.

  • Stress: Stress is a general risk factor that increases chances of developing any cancer. Even when a cancerous cell is formed, it may still be destroyed by normal body mechanisms. Stress has been known to depress immunity and stressful life will definitely add to the risk of developing a cancer, though slightly.

  • Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT): This has been realized as an important risk factor. Hormone replacement therapy consists of giving a combination of estrogen and progesterone to relieve menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, loss of sexual desire, etc. In June 2002, a large trial of estrogen and progesterone in healthy postmenopausal women, by the WHI (Women's Health Initiative) was stopped early when researchers found that women who took the hormones had an increased risk of developing breast cancer and heart disease. So if at all HRT is indicated, it must be taken with a clear idea of risk of breast cancer and awareness about screening.

  • Oral Contraceptives: There is a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer in ladies taking oral contraceptives. Again, the play of hormones is thought to be responsible.

  • Breast Density: A high breast density on a mammogram is considered as one of the strongest risk factors for developing breast cancer. This breast density can be on a mammogram by calculating the amount of radiodense areas which represent the breast tissue.

  • Obesity: Obese individuals have a higher incidence of developing breast cancer. This effect may be related to the production of estrogen by the fat cells. Obesity can be calculated by the BMI (Body mass Index). Increasing BMI is associated with an increasing risk of breast cancer.

  • Diet: A healthy balanced low fat high vegetable diet, and regular fruit intake will decrease chances of developing breast cancer. Vitamin D is also thought to have a protective effect, trials are going on regarding the same.

  • Radiation Exposure: An exposure to radiation in the second or third decades of life will increase the chances of developing breast cancer in the future. This would include patients of Hodgkin's disease, intra thoracic tumours etc, for which radiation has been given.

  • Exercise: Regular exercise and brisk walking helps to tone the body, burn the unnecessary fat and create a general feeling of well being. A regular exercise will be helpful to curb the risk of cancer.

  • Alcohol: Regular daily intake of alcohol may increase the risk of developing breast cancer.