A risk factor is anything that increases the possibility that you will develop breast cancer. Risk factors are attributes that you cannot control, such as your age and family history, as well as those you can control – “lifestyle” factors like diet, alcohol consumption and weight. When talking about risk factors, we often hear about a family history of breast cancer – and while this is an important factor, it’s not the only one. In fact, it’s not even the most common one.
The most common risk factor? Well, being female, for starters. It seems obvious, because breast cancer is known as a “woman’s disease,” but men do get it. It’s rare, but about 1% of the 225,000 diagnoses of breast cancer a year are given to men. After that, age is the most common risk factor. Most cases of breast cancer are found in women over 50, and the average age of a diagnosis is 63.
Obviously, we can’t control some of these factors. Age and genetics are two things we can’t escape from. But environmental factors we can control. Alcohol is linked to a clear increase in breast cancer risk, as is obesity. The link to certain foods is less certain, but researchers agree diet plays a part. Most experts agree that significant health benefits result from eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and lower in fat and animal products, and more than just in terms of cancer risks. Take a good look at the foods you eat and what you can substitute – for example, seafood is a good way to get plenty of protein without the fat content of red meats, plus we’ve all heard about the heart and health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.
So it’s important to look at your breast cancer risk as a whole, and not just focus on specific factors. Here are some important facts to know about breast cancer risk:
- While having one or more risk factors may increase a woman’s risk of developing the disease, risk factors do not directly cause cancer.
- Many cases of breast cancer occur in women with NO known risk factors (other than being female and growing older) – so all women need to be aware of changes in their breasts and get appropriate breast cancer screening.
- The opposite is also true – some women with known breast cancer risk factors never develop the disease.
- Not all risk factors are equally important. Some, such as having a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, significantly increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, while others, such as pregnancy after the age of 35, only slightly increase that risk.
- Every woman should be aware of her personal risk factors and talk to her doctor about her personal and family history.
Read more about risk factors, from the most common to the most arcane at the links below: