According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second most common cancer in American women. The average woman in the United States has a 1 in 8 lifetime chance of developing this disease and a 1 in 39 chance of dying from it. But early detection and treatment have decreased death rates by about 1% per year since 2013. Here is what you need to know to lower your risks.
Breast Cancer Risk Factors
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that there are several factors you cannot change that could increase your risk for breast cancer. Knowing your inherent risk factors can help you and your doctor determine the right preventive steps for you. These include:
- Being female. Men can get breast cancer, and more than 500 men (Susan G. Komen Foundation) die of it each year. But the overwhelming majority of these cancers occur in women, with over 43,000 women losing their breast cancer battle each year.
- Older age. Most, though not all, breast cancers occur in women over 50.
- Family history is a strong indicator of breast cancer risk due to specific inherited genetic mutations.
- Fertile period. Women who started menstruating before age 12 or entered menopause after age 55 are at higher risk.
- Personal history. If you have ever had breast cancer or other breast-related diseases, you could be at increased risk.
- Dense breasts. Women with dense breasts are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
- Radiation therapy. Those who have undergone radiation therapy before age 30 are at greater risk for breast cancer later in life.
- Drug exposure. Diethylstilbestrol, or DES, was prescribed to some women to reduce the risk of miscarriage from 1940 to 1971. If you took this drug, or your mother took it while pregnant with you, your breast cancer risk might be higher.
By far, the highest risk factors for breast cancer are inherited mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and a strong family history of either breast or ovarian cancers. If you fall into one of these categories, talk to your doctor right away, no matter your age.
Fortunately, many breast cancer risk factors are within your control. All women should consider taking the following steps to lower the risk of breast cancer:
- Improve your overall health. Lifestyle choices can significantly impact your risks for most cancers, including breast cancer. Eat a healthy diet, including a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise at least five days per week, along with muscle strengthening exercises twice a week. Lower your alcohol consumption and maintain a healthy weight.
- Women who have at least one pregnancy before age 30 and breastfeed that child have a lower lifetime risk of developing breast cancer.
- Limit hormone therapy. Long-term use of either hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapies may increase your risks. Work with your doctor to find the lowest dose and shortest time frame that works for you.
Like most diseases, breast cancer is easiest to treat when it is caught early. Regular screening procedures can help detect suspicious changes before they have the opportunity to progress.
A monthly breast self-exam can be a powerful tool in the fight against breast cancer. Check your breasts right after your monthly period, looking for any swelling, lumps, or other unusual changes. Most breast abnormalities are not cancer, but it’s important to bring any findings to your doctor’s attention.
In general, women over 50 at average risk for breast cancer should get a mammogram every two years and a clinical breast exam yearly. However, women at higher risk may need to start sooner or get mammograms more often. Talk to your doctor to determine the mammogram schedule that is right for you.
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, there are numerous treatment options. Which to choose depends on your specific type of cancer and how far it has progressed. Your treatment team will help you choose the treatment plan that is right for you. Choices include:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted drug therapy
- Hormone therapy
Breast cancer is highly treatable, especially in its early stages. Be sure to thoroughly understand your options, including the risks and benefits of each choice, before making a decision.
Mental health concerns
A breast cancer diagnosis can be devastating for both patients and loved ones. It’s normal to feel frightened, sad and overwhelmed. A 2021 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Cancer shows that being diagnosed with breast cancer raises the risks for four different mental health issues: non-specific distress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and depression. Whether you are battling breast cancer or supporting a loved one with this diagnosis, it is essential to safeguard your mental health.
- Join a support group. Support groups can include people at all stages of the breast cancer journey, from the newly diagnosed to those in remission for years and everyone in between. They can help you feel less isolated and offer real-life tips for getting through the treatment process. Support groups for caregivers offer a safe space to step out of caregiving mode and explore your feelings while also gaining valuable information on becoming a better caregiver.
- Open up. Keeping your diagnosis to yourself can be isolating. Talk about your cancer journey with your loved ones, and allow them to help. This will strengthen your relationships and foster an ongoing source of both practical and emotional support.
- Connect with your community. Strive to create and strengthen your connections within your local community. Whether you volunteer with a cancer charity or other organization or simply attend as many local events as possible, staying connected can help keep you pushing forward.
- Talk to a health psychologist. These professionals are experts in the intersection between mental and physical health. They can help you understand and come to terms with your illness while focusing on any mental health issues that may arise.
- Reduce overall stress. Lowering overall stress helps you feel better emotionally and can be a valuable tool in your fight against breast cancer. Depending on your interests, you might choose yoga, meditation, painting, dancing, or some other activity that helps you relax and promotes a positive mindset.