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Are You At Risk For Breast Cancer?

The American Cancer Society reports that as many as 1 in every 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some time in her life.

Women diagnosed in early stages of the cancer have a better chance of long-term survival than in later stages when it has spread, which is why annual check-ups and screenings are critical so that treatment can be initiated as early as possible.

It also is important for women to know their risk factors for breast cancer so that they can be alert and take precautionary measures. We can divide risk factors into two groups, those we cannot influence, and those we can. Risk factors we cannot influence include age, race, and genetics. Risk factors we can control include lifestyle choices, like alcohol intake or exercise, weight, and hormone therapy.


Risk Factors We Cannot Influence

Age: The chance of a breast cancer diagnosis increases with age. The highest rates are in women over the age of 60 (age 30 – 0.44% or, 1 in 227 women will be diagnosed with cancer; age 70 – 3.82%, or 1 in 26 women will be diagnosed with cancer*)

Race: White women are diagnosed with breast cancer more often that African-American, Native-American, Asian, and Latina women.

Hereditary:  Women have a higher risk if breast cancer has been diagnosed in a parent or a sibling. Risk increases if the women has previously been diagnosed with breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Having been treated for lymphoma ,under age 30 ,with radiation therapy to the chest also increases the risk of breast cancer.

Reproductive: Women who got their periods before 12 years of age, who entered menopause after age 55, or who either never were pregnant or who were pregnant after the age of 30 are at a higher risk.

Dense breast tissue: Dense breast tissue not only increases risk, but it also makes it more difficult for diagnosis with a traditional mammogramBeebe Healthcare offers both traditional (2D) and 3D mammography, and breast MRI.

Gene Mutations: As much as 10% of breast cancers have been attributed to gene mutations.

Talk to your doctor about your breast health and to determine if you should have a mammogram. Learn about mammograms.

By finding cancers early, treatments can eradicate those mutations before they have time to spread.

All women should be doing regular self breast exams, which makes it easier to notice if there are changes to your breasts over time. If you notice a change, talk to your doctor immediately. Learn more about self breast exams.


Risk Factors We Can Influence

While there are risk factors you cannot change, there are many you can, including nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle. Studies have shown that being overweight or obese raises your risk of all cancers. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the first ways you can focus on reducing your cancer risk.

There are many lifestyle behaviors that we can change to lower our risk for a breast cancer diagnosis, as it is believed that a woman’s chance of being diagnosed increases with an increase in risk factors. 

Alcohol: Alcohol effects the body in numerous ways that can increase women’s risk for breast cancer. It can decrease the amount of folate in the body, raise estrogen levels, and add to increased weight gain. The American Cancer Society recommends that women have no more than 1 drink a day.

Obesity: Weight gain and increased body fat following menopause is considered to be a contributing factor to the increased rates of breast cancer as women age. Being overweight or obese after age 18 yr increases the risk of breast cancer as much as 30%. Women should maintain a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less that 25 to minimize risk of breast cancer. (insert link to BMI table, height/weight /BMI)

Inactivity: Again and again we have seen that exercise is important to our overall health and wellness. Inactivity, which also can lead to obesity, is a risk factor for breast cancer, as well as for other health problems including heart disease and diabetes. How much exercise is enough ? Each of us should do a minimum of 30 minutes, five times each week, of moderate physical activity, with heart rate averaging in our personal aerobic zone (link to calculator for aerobic heart rate , based on age).

Hormone therapy:  women should not take combination (estrogen and progesterone) hormone therapy after menopause for more than 5 years. Breast cancer risk is increased approximately 35% among current long-term users of HRT; and the risk among former users returns to that of never-users within five years of cessation of hormone therapy.

Smoking: The rate of new breast cancer cases is 24% higher among smokers than among nonsmokers. The risk of invasive breast cancer is higher in women who began smoking at an earlier age. When compared to women who never smoked, those who started smoking before their first menstrual cycle have a 61% higher risk. Learn more about ways you can quit smoking and improve your health.

Research is showing us that we can impact our risk factors for many chronic diseases by:

  • Practicing healthy lifestyles such as keeping physically active
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating healthy foods
  • Staying in contact with our health providers through checkups and screenings; and by calling our physician if something just doesn’t seem right. 

This participatory behavior also is important for breast cancer.


Visit Beebe to Learn About Your Risk

If a woman is interested in learning about her personal risk of developing breast cancer, she can schedule an appointment for a “Breast Cancer Prevention” visit at Beebe Healthcare.
At that visit:

  1. The woman will meet with a Breast Surgeon to have a physical examination, review her breast imaging, review any previous breast biopsy results, and review her family history.
  2. A computer model will be utilized to calculate the woman’s personal risk, based on her own personal and family history, and a personalized strategy for risk reduction will be outlined for her.
  3. That plan will include tailored screening appropriate to her level of risk and her age
  4. If her level of risk warrants referral to Medical Oncology to discuss risk reducing medication, that will be arranged.
  5. If the woman’s family or personal history indicate that genetic testing might be indicated, referral to a Genetic Counselor will be arranged.

Environmental Risk Factors

While there are risks we cannot change - genetics - and those we can - nutrition and exercise, there are also risk factors that we might not be aware of, such as those from our environment.

Studies have not been able to conclusively show whether environmental factors such as estrogen-like chemicals found in some plastics or personal care products increase the risk of breast cancer. Other ongoing inconclusive studies are looking at whether tight-fitting bras or antiperspirants increase breast cancer risk.

For now, we do know that the more active you are and the better diet you eat, the less risk you have for developing breast cancer.

Additional Resources

Here at Beebe, we are able to work with financial resources, through Komen Philadelphia® grants, which help pay for the diagnosis costs for breast cancer for those who qualify. Those diagnosed with cancer can then become eligible for funds to pay for treatment under the state of Delaware Cancer Treatment Program.

In addition, recent changes under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have made mammography a free preventative service for most women.

The American College of Radiology (ACR) and Society of Breast Imaging (SBI) recommend that women start getting yearly mammograms at age 40. Learn more about mammogram screening at Beebe and make an appointment.

Call 302-645-3278 to schedule your mammogram with Beebe.


For More information, contact the Breast Health Nurse Navigator