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What are the risks of breast cancer, and can the disease be prevented?
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What are the risks of breast cancer, and can the disease be prevented?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women. According to the American Cancer Society, there is a 1 in 8 chance that a woman in the United States will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. While that is a high number that can cause concern, it does also mean that there is a 7 out of 8 chance that a woman will never develop the disease. In 2024, the Society estimates that about 310,720 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the US.

To learn more about breast cancer diagnosis, you can read up on breast cancer grades vs stages and learn more about symptoms. While learning about the disease, it is important to remember that it is complex, and that no two patients will have the same experience or be in the same situation, and it is essential to approach the topic with nuance.

While there is no way to entirely prevent breast cancer from occurring, understanding some genetic and lifestyle risks can help you make better and healthier choices.

The first set of risk factors are unchangeable or non-modifiable, such as getting older or having certain genetics. Despite this, it does not inherently mean that you will get breast cancer. It means, more likely, that you will have an increased risk.

Some risk factors that you cannot change are your sex, your age, and having certain genes. The main risk factor for breast cancer is being born female. Men can get breast cancer too, but it is much rarer. And as women get older, their risk of breast cancer goes up, with most cancers found in middle-aged and elderly women (aged 55 and up). 

Additionally, certain genetics can increase your chances of getting breast cancer, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These are genes that help repair damaged DNA by making proteins, and mutations of these genes can lead to abnormal cell growth, which could lead to cancer. In fact, according to Cancer.org, women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation are purported to have a 7 in 10 chance of getting breast cancer by age 80, and they tend to be diagnosed at a younger age as well.

Another unchangeable risk factor is also related to genetics. Particularly, having a family history of breast cancer. Women who have a family history of the disease (in terms of close blood relatives, such as a mother, sister, or daughter) are three times more prone to breast cancer. When you have a father or brother who has had breast cancer, the risk also increases, according to Cancer.org.

Aside from these few unchangeable risk factors, there are a few lifestyle factors that play a part in increasing or decreasing one’s risk of developing cancer. They include habits related to diet, activity, and the decision to reproduce.

From the same source at Cancer.org, women who consume more than 1 alcoholic drink a day are said to have a slightly higher risk (7 to 10%) than those who do not drink, while those who have 2 to 3 drinks a day have an increased risk (20%). Women who are overweight or obese after menopause also tend to have higher risk of breast cancer. 

According to Susan G. Komen, the reason is related to blood estrogen and insulin levels. After menopause, a woman’s ovaries no longer produce much estrogen – instead, the estrogen comes from fat tissue. This is because fat tissue contains an enzyme called aromatase, which converts hormones called androgens into estrogen. Heavier women also have a higher level of insulin, and women with higher levels of estrogen and/or insulin have a higher risk of breast cancer.

Another lifestyle-related risk factor is a lack of physical activity, which can increase breast cancer risk, especially in older women past menopause. Studies have shown that regular exercise can have a ‘protective effect’ against breast cancer. While it cannot prevent the disease from developing – as it arises often not from a single factor but from a myriad – there is an average risk reduction of 25% of breast cancer diagnoses in women who work to stay fit. Among those who do have breast cancer, regular exercise before and after diagnosis also minimizes the chance of recurrence and can potentially improve prognosis.

Additionally, women who have not had children or had their first child after the age of 30 may also have higher risk of developing breast cancer. While those who have children at a younger age or have multiple children have lower risk. Nevertheless, there is no 1:1 correlation, as the development of the disease is complex. Even for women who have children, their risk of developing breast cancer after childbirth increases for 10 years before decreasing again.

A healthy diet and regular exercise in maintaining appropriate weight are essential to lower their risk of developing breast cancer for women, particularly those who are older or have experienced menopause. This means having a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, as well as exercise of moderate intensity for 150 to 300 minutes a week, as recommended by the American Cancer Society. (Or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity, or a combination of the two.)

Knowing what risk factors for breast cancer are unchangeable and what are not can help women make better lifestyle choices and live their daily lives more thoughtfully. Of course, it is essential to remember that breast cancer is a complex disease, and that you can do, on paper, all the right things and still develop the disease. Alternatively, someone can ignore every lifestyle recommendation and never develop the disease. What is important is understanding how you can take active steps to protect yourself and decrease your cancer risk as you grow older.

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