Breast cancer is the most common type of invasive cancer in women, and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women, after lung cancer.
For women, the chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime is 1-in-8.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the United States and a good time to know how the risk of developing breast cancer might be lowered.
While the exact cause of breast cancer remains unclear, Dr. Stephanie Repole, a breast surgeon with Bon Secours Surgical Specialists, said certain risk factors make it more likely. While some of them can’t be changed, there are risk factors that can be changed.
She said a few of the “controllable” lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk for women include:
- Not being physically active: Women who are not physically active have a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
- Being overweight or obese after menopause: Older women who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of getting breast cancer than those at a normal weight.
- Taking hormones: Some forms of hormone replacement therapy (those that include both estrogen and progesterone) taken during menopause can raise the risk for breast cancer when taken for more than five years. Certain oral contraceptives (birth control pills) also have been found to increase breast cancer risks.
- Reproductive history: Having a first pregnancy after age 30, not breastfeeding, and never having a full-term pregnancy can raise breast cancer risk.
- Drinking alcohol: Studies show that women who drink more alcohol have a higher risk.
Just like there are some risks that can be controlled, there are some that can’t. The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age and breast density plays a role, while genetics and possible genetic mutations can’t be controlled — and neither can the age at which a female starts her menstrual cycle nor if she starts menopause after the age 55.
“Research also suggests that other factors such as smoking, being exposed to chemicals that can cause cancer, and changes in other hormones due to night shift work also may increase breast cancer risk,” Repole said.
One of the most common symptoms is an irregularity on a mammogram, which indicates the need for more screening and hopefully any abnormalities being detected at an early stage.
Repole said a few additional common signs that indicate a woman should see a health care provider include:
- A change in the look or feel of the breast;
- A change in the look or feel of the nipple;
- Discharge from the nipple.
“It’s important to note that most lumps are not cancerous, but women should have them checked by a health care provider,” she said.
Bon Secours also offers a free, online risk assessment tool.