There are many different factors that can affect your chances of getting breast cancer.
There’s no one single reason – it results from a combination of the way we live our lives, our genes and our surrounding environment. Unfortunately, we can’t predict who will get breast cancer, and for women who have been diagnosed with the disease, we can’t confidently say what might have caused their breast cancer, but you can take steps to lower your chances.
- What can I change?
- What risk factors can’t I change?
- You should also be aware of...
- A family history of breast cancer
- Myths about the causes of breast cancer
By making small healthy changes and living well now, you can lower your chances of getting breast cancer. We can’t guarantee that you won’t develop breast cancer, but leading a healthy lifestyle does give you a better chance.
Regularly drinking alcohol is associated with a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink can reduce your risk of breast cancer.
Your risk of developing breast cancer increases if you are overweight or obese after the menopause. You can reduce your risk by maintaining a healthy weight.
If you smoke, quitting could help to lower your risk of breast cancer. There is growing evidence from several recent studies (including our Generations Study) that smoking slightly increases your chance of developing breast cancer, and evidence that the younger you start smoking, the greater your risk of breast cancer.
Unfortunately, there are some things affecting your risk of breast cancer that you can’t do anything about.
Breast cancer is more common in women over the age of 50, which is when at least four out of five of all breast cancer cases in the UK occur.
Women aged 50 to 70 are eligible for breast screening on the NHS and should receive an appointment every three years. Women over 70 can request screening appointments.
If you have a high amount of breast tissue compared to fat, you have a ‘high breast density’, which increases your risk of breast cancer.
When you started your period
Women who started their periods at an early age have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. The earlier you began your periods, the higher your risk, but this increase is small.
If you’re a white woman, you’re more likely to develop breast cancer than if you are a non-white woman or from an ethnic minority.
When you go through the menopause
If you go through a late menopause, your chance of getting breast cancer is slightly increased.
Having a benign breast condition
Your chance of getting breast cancer may be higher if you have a benign (non-cancerous) breast condition. However, most benign breast conditions do not increase your chance of getting breast cancer.
How tall you are
The taller you are, the higher your chance of getting breast cancer, although this is only a slight increase in risk.
Your size at birth
The bigger you were when you were born, the slightly higher your chances of developing breast cancer, especially before the menopause.
If you have a family history of breast cancer, you and some other members of your family may have a higher than average risk of developing the disease, however, there may be some ways you can manage your risk.
There are some lifestyle factors, including things like Aspirin, shiftwork and radiotherapy that may have a mild effect on your breast cancer risk.
HRT increases your risk while you’re taking it – but within a year or two after you’ve stopped, this increased risk largely disappears.
Taking the combined contraceptive pill slightly increases your risk of breast cancer – but within a few years of stopping, this risk disappears.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Having children has a complex effect on breast cancer risk. Overall, in the long term, pregnancy reduces the risk of breast cancer. Breastfeeding your children slightly reduces your risk of breast cancer.
There are a lot of myths about what causes breast cancer, including aluminium in deodorant, underwired bras and breast implants.
What should I do if I am worried about my risk of breast cancer?
If you are worried about any of the breast cancer risk factors mentioned here you should discuss your concerns with your doctor. They will be able to give you more information and advice, and help you to make the best choice for you.
It’s important to regularly check your breasts for any unusual changes. Learn about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer to look out for.
Information last reviewed: November 2018
Next review: November 2021
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