Every year, the U.S. sees approximately 240,000 breast cancer diagnoses in women and 2,100 in men, leading to about 42,000 female and 500 male fatalities. But research shows that proactive steps can be the difference between wellness and adverse outcomes.
In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, let’s focus on preventive measures and deepening our understanding of this potentially disease. Read on to discover key breast cancer risk factors, prevalent types, and strategies to protect your health for years to come.
Breast cancer: common risk factors
According to the National Cancer Institute, roughly 12.9% of women are likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lives. Current estimates indicate that a woman born today has a 1 in 8 chance of receiving this diagnosis, but a 7 in 8 chance of avoiding it.
Still, breast cancer cases are on the rise–and a recent study in the Journal of Business Research highlighted that insufficient awareness is largely to blame. Here are some key risk factors to keep in mind:
Age: Breast cancer risk increases with age. The majority of invasive cases are identified in women over 50, affecting 1 in 42 in this age group. Conversely, only 1 in 204 women under 30 face this diagnosis.
Obesity or excess weight: Being overweight or obese heightens your risk of breast cancer. Excess weight also statistically increases the likelihood of its recurrence.
This is because fat tissue produces excess estrogen, a hormone linked to elevated risks of several cancers, including breast and ovarian.
Physical inactivity: Regular exercise is essential in reducing breast cancer risk–especially post-menopause. Physical activity helps regulate hormones, including estrogen and insulin, known to promote breast cancer growth.
Consistent exercise also helps maintain a healthy weight, further regulating hormones and boosting the immune system, which are key in fighting cancer.
Dense breasts: Having dense breasts can increase your cancer risk, potentially due to the greater number of cells that could become abnormal. Their high connective tissue content, relative to fatty tissue, also complicates tumor detection.
Not breastfeeding: Breastfeeding may modestly reduce breast cancer risk, with studies suggesting a 4.3% decrease for every 12 months of breastfeeding and a 7% drop with each birth.
The reason for this isn’t entirely clear. But breastfeeding often leads to hormonal changes that delay menstrual cycles, reducing prolonged exposure to estrogen–a hormone known to promote certain kinds of breast cancer growth.
Genetics: Studies show that certain inherited gene mutations–namely of the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2–can significantly increase your susceptibility to breast cancer.
While only 5-10% of breast cancers are linked to these mutations, women with these mutations can face up to a 72% lifetime risk–of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer. A family history, especially in immediate female relatives like mothers and sisters, can also double your breast cancer risk.
If there’s evidence of a hereditary predisposition in your family, consider genetic counseling. Recognizing these genetic conditions early can give you tailored discussions on screenings and preventive strategies, with BRCA mutation carriers starting screenings as early as age 25.
Drinking alcohol: Moderate alcohol intake can increase your breast cancer risk by about 30-50%.
Researchers believe this may be due to alcohol’s impact on estrogen receptors, leading to heightened estrogen levels and longer menstrual cycles. Increased estrogen exposure can promote breast tumor growth.
Additionally, alcohol can hinder nutrient absorption, affecting your body’s ability to repair DNA.
If you drink alcohol, consider limiting yourself to one serving daily or abstaining altogether.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT): Research shows that HRT may slightly elevate your risk of breast cancer. The exact reason remains unclear, but experts believe the heightened estrogen levels from HRT play a role.
Pregnancy: Some studies show that pregnancy may temporarily increase your breast cancer risk. While the exact mechanism behind this isn’t fully understood, it may have to do with the high hormone levels during pregnancy–especially during the third trimester.
Heightened levels of estrogen and progesterone may have growth-promoting effects on breast cells. Some research suggests this elevated risk can persist for two to three decades post-childbirth, although further studies are needed.
History of radiation therapy to the chest: Research indicates that women who underwent radiation therapy to the chest or breasts (such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma treatment) before turning 30 face a heightened risk of breast cancer as they age.
While some women might develop breast cancer without any recognizable risk factors, it’s essential to remember that having a risk factor doesn’t guarantee you’ll get cancer. Each risk factor varies in its influence. And while a vast majority of women have some risk factors, most don’t develop breast cancer.
Most common types of breast cancer
Despite its relatively high survival rate when detected early, breast cancer is a serious disease that can affect your quality of life. Treatments can alter your appearance and well-being, and the associated anxieties can make daily tasks daunting.
But gaining a deeper understanding of the disease can empower you to handle it with a more optimistic perspective. Here are the most common types of breast cancer, as classified by medical professionals.
Location: common types of breast cancer classified by point of origin
Doctors typically categorize breast cancers by where they begin. Here’s a breakdown of some common types of breast cancer and their starting points:
Ductal carcinoma: the most common type of breast cancer, originating in the breast ducts (the channels that carry milk). Invasive ductal carcinoma, which spreads beyond the ducts, accounts for 70 to 80 percent of all diagnosed cases.
Lobular carcinoma: starts in the milk-producing glands, called lobules. Invasive lobular carcinoma is the second most common breast cancer.
Paget’s disease of the breast: starts in the nipple skin and often extends to the surrounding area (areola). Common signs include itching, burning, and sometimes bleeding or discharge.
Inflammatory breast cancer: a rare but aggressive type that affects the breast’s skin and is characterized by a lack of distinct lumps. The cancer cells obstruct the lymph vessels, leading to a red, swollen appearance, looking similar to an infection.
Spread: types of breast cancer classified by areas spread in the body
Doctors also categorize breast cancer by its progression and whether it has spread within the body. Here’s an overview of breast cancer types based on their extent of spread.
In situ: a term meaning the cancer is localized to its point of origin. The previously discussed cancer types can be in this stage, meaning they haven’t ventured beyond their starting point.
Invasive: a term used when the cancer extends beyond its initial location and into neighboring tissues. At this point, breast cancer may continue spreading to other areas of the body.
Metastatic: a term used when the cancer has traveled and established itself in other parts of the body. Some medical experts might also call it advanced or stage IV breast cancer. While this can sound daunting, many people with this diagnosis continue to lead long, fulfilling lives.
Less common types of breast cancer
Triple-negative breast cancer: lacks the involvement of estrogen, progesterone, and HER-2/neu receptors (three common types of receptors known to fuel breast cancer growth). Especially aggressive, it commonly affects younger individuals, African Americans, and those with BRCA1 mutations.
HER2-positive breast cancer: tests positive for the protein, human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), which boosts cancer growth. Though less common, it can be very aggressive.
Colloid carcinoma: a typically less aggressive type also known as mucinous carcinoma. Its characteristics may not appear different from standard invasive ductal carcinoma.
Medullary breast carcinoma: a rare subtype of triple-negative breast cancer originating from milk ducts. It’s invasive and often occurs in those with a BRCA1 mutation.
Tubular carcinoma: a rare low-grade tissue growth, making up about 1-2% of invasive breast cancers. It’s characterized by well-differentiated tubular structures.
Phyllodes tumor: rare tumors originating in the breast’s connective tissue. While generally benign, some can be malignant, typically appearing in women between ages 35 and 55.
Angiosarcoma: a very rare cancer starting in the breast’s blood or lymph vessel lining. It’s often associated with prior radiation therapy in the region.
How to prevent breast cancer naturally
Studies from the International Agency for Research on Cancer reveal that about one-third of breast cancer cases could be prevented through diet and exercise. This challenges the prevalent belief that genetics or family history solely determine risk.
Along with regular breast self-exams, consider these healthy lifestyle habits.
- Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. These foods contain vital nutrients and antioxidants linked to decreased cancer risks.
- Limit processed foods and red meats. Excess saturated fat may increase breast cancer risk.
- Exercise regularly. This helps control weight and regulate hormones like estrogen.
- Reduce stress with practices like meditation and yoga. Stress can advance cancer by making the body release specific stress hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, which have been linked with cancer risk and spread.
- Limit alcohol. Alcohol can elevate estrogen levels and damage cellular DNA. Women who consume three to six drinks weekly increase their breast cancer risk by 15%.
- Avoid or quit smoking. Studies show that current long-term smokers (over 10 years) have around a 10% increased risk.
Breast cancer is a dangerous disease. But it’s often preventable, and typically very treatable–especially when caught early.
Understanding common risk factors, types of breast cancer, and lifestyle choices that can reduce your susceptibility is crucial for safeguarding your health. So stay informed, and if you are diagnosed, draw strength from the many available community and national resources to support you on your healing journey.