Risk Factors You Can't Change
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Your personal risk for breast cancer depends on a number of factors. Some risk factors are part of your personal or family history.
Here are some risks that you can't change:
Being a Woman
The number one risk factor for breast cancer is being born a woman: Women are 100 times more likely than men to develop breast cancer.
Being Older than 40
As women get older, their chance of developing breast cancer increases. Most women - 93 percent - are older than 40 years old when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. Breast cancer is even more common among women who are older than 60. Though the lifetime risk of having breast cancer is 1 in 8 for American women; the risk of having breast cancer between the ages of 40 and 49 is only 1 in 69, and increases to 1 in 29 women if you are aged 60 to 69.
Having Certain Genes
Abnormalities in certain genes or DNA are believed to cause five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases. While changes to several genes can lead to breast cancer, abnormalities in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are the most studied and understood. Women who have an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have a greater chance of developing breast cancer (up to an 80 percent increased risk), as well as ovarian cancer.
If you know you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, you can be seen at the UW Health Prevention and Tailored Health Screening Clinic (PATHS). Talk with your health care provider about the PATHS clinic.
There are other risk factors related to abnormal genes that also can increase your chance of having breast cancer. Talk with your provider about your breast cancer risk if you have any of these:
- Family history of ovarian cancer
- Family history of a male relative with breast cancer. Learn more about how having a male relative with breast cancer affects your risk
- Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
- Family history of breast cancer
- Family history of gland-related cancers including cancers of the pancreas, colon, and thyroid
Family History of Breast Cancer
If one of your blood relatives has had breast cancer, your risk for having breast cancer is increased. This is true for relatives on both your mother's and father's sides of the family. Risk increases if an immediate family member (parent, sibling, or child) has breast cancer. Keep in mind that most people with breast cancer (70 to 80 percent) do not have a family history of breast cancer.
Personal History of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer survivors are at risk for developing breast cancer in the other breast or in a different part of the same breast. Even after treatment that has seemed to work, breast cancer can come back (recur) or spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. About 5 percent of women will get breast cancer eight years after the first breast cancer was found. About 12 percent of women will get breast cancer 20 years after the first breast cancer was found. Learn more about recurrent and metastatic breast cancer.
Caucasian women have a higher rate of having breast cancer than African American women, while African American women have a higher rate of dying from breast cancer. African American women are more likely to develop breast cancer before menopause, while Caucasian women are more likely to develop breast cancer after menopause. Asian, Hispanic and American Indian women have a lower rate of breast cancer than Caucasian women. Visit the Susan G. Komen site to learn more about how and why race can affect breast cancer risk.
Dense Breast Tissue and Mammograms
Women who have dense breast tissue have a greater chance of having breast cancer. Dense breast tissue means there is more glandular tissue than fatty tissue in the breast. Dense breast tissue also makes it harder to spot problems on a mammogram. Make sure you know your breasts and what is normal for you, no matter how dense your breast tissue. If you notice a change in your breasts, talk with your health care provider right away.
The age you are when you get your first period and the age you are when you start menopause are linked to your risk for breast cancer. If you have your first period before you are 12 years old, you are at higher risk for breast cancer than those who have their first period later. If you go through menopause after you are 55 years old, you are at higher risk for breast cancer than those who go through it earlier. Both are due to having more menstrual cycles, which leads to more exposure to hormones and a greater risk of breast cancer. Visit the Susan G. Komen site to learn more about how reproductive factors affect breast cancer risk.
Giving Birth to Children
Your age at the time you give birth to your first child and the number of children you have are linked to your risk for breast cancer. Women who do not give birth to children and women who give birth to their first children after they are 30 years old have a greater chance of developing breast cancer. The link between having children and the risk of breast cancer is complex. In general, the more children a woman gives birth to, the lower her risk for breast cancer. This might be due to having fewer menstrual cycles and the hormones that go with them. Visit the Susan G. Komen website to learn more about how giving birth to children and your age when you have them affects your risk.
Chest radiation as treatment for another cancer increases risk for breast cancer. The amount of risk depends on when the radiation is given during a person’s life. The risk is greatest when the radiation is given during the teen years because the breasts are developing at this time.
Treatment with Diethylstilbestrol (DES)
DES is a drug that was given between 1940-1971 to pregnant women to lower their risk of miscarriage, premature labor and other pregnancy-related problems. Since then, this drug has been linked to increased breast cancer risk for the women who took it while pregnant and their daughters. When the daughters are older than 40, they are twice as likely to develop breast cancer as others who have not been exposed to DES. If you took DES or your mom took DES while pregnant with you, tell your health care provider.