While there are several risk factors that cannot be reduced, there are a few that you can affect.
The risk factors that cannot be reduced are:
- Being a woman. For every 99 women who get breast cancer, there is one man who gets the disease.
- Getting older. Although the media has a tendency to focus on young women with breast cancer, that is actually rare. The most common age of women who get breast cancer is those aged 55-65.
- Family history. Having one first-degree relative doubles your risk. Two first-degree relatives gives you a risk that is five times higher. Only five to ten percent of families have multiple women with breast cancer. It is rare for a woman to have a breast cancer gene.
- Breast density. Having a higher amount of breast tissue and connective tissue (the tissue between the breast tissue) compared to fat, increases your risk. It’s harder to screen women with dense breasts, so digital mammograms are recommended.
- Menstrual cycle/pregnancies/biopsies. Women who are exposed to less estrogen in their lifetime have a lower risk of cancer. Girls who start their menstrual cycle at a later age have a lower risk, as do women who have children at a young age. Women who breastfeed for more than six months also have a lower risk.
- Studies show a slightly higher risk for women who have had biopsies, even if they are benign. The reason is unknown.
The risk factors that can be reduced are:
- Maintaining a healthy weight. Being overweight increases the risk of breast cancer, especially after menopause. For adults, having both an increase in body weight as well as gaining weight, can increase your risk. Higher weight can also increase your risk for recurrence of breast cancer and decreases survival if the breast cancer is sensitive to hormones, which most are.
- Exercise. Women who exercise have a lower risk of breast cancer, possibly because it reduces weight or it may decrease the risk on its own. Another reason is that estrogen levels tend to be lower in women who exercise regularly. It is recommended that you do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week to reduce the risk.
- Limiting alcohol. The more you drink, the higher your risk. Try to limit yourself to one drink per day or less.
- Avoiding hormone replacement medications or staying on them for only a short period of time. Long term (more than 5 years) combination therapy (estrogen and progesterone) increases the risk of breast cancer. If you require hormone replacement medication for menopausal symptoms, try to take it for the shortest period of time at the lowest possible dose. There have been no research studies on bio-identical hormones and their risk.
- Environmental factors. There is a possible link to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (vehicle exhaust and air pollution). There is no link to the use of deodorants.
Dr. Tenofsky stressed that the best thing you can do is to catch the cancer early since lifestyle methods are not easy and only reduce the risk slightly.
There is a 98.4 percent five year survival rate when cancers are detected early, which would be before they can be felt on an exam.
Screening is important. For women with a normal risk of breast cancer, mammograms are encouraged starting at age 40 and should continue if you are in good health.
For women at high risk, which are those who have strong family history, have the BRCA gene, and have had radiation to the chest wall, mammograms are suggested 10 years before the age of the youngest affected family member. In addition, you should consider additional screening such as an MRI and risk reducing medications.
If you’d like more information, you can see the PowerPoint from Dr. Tenofsky’s presentation below.