All women are at risk from Breast Cancer, which affects one in eight women in the world today. Many risk factors are things that you have no or little control over, such as your family history or your race.

It is important to remember that three-quarters of women who get Breast Cancer were not at increased risk, and we don’t fully understand why different women get cancer yet. Even if you have all these risk factors, it only highlights the need to be careful and check your breasts regularly. It does not mean you are going to get Breast Cancer.

So what are the risk factors for Breast Cancer and how can you deal with them? You can separate risk factors into three groups:

Risk factors you can’t avoid:

  • Ethnicity: White women have more of a risk of getting cancer than black or Asian women. There is very little you can do to change a risk factor like this.
  • Age: The risk of getting Breast Cancer increases with age. At thirty your risk of Breast Cancer is 1 in 2000, that increases to 1in 50 at age fifty and by eighty years it is 1 in 10. That is why it is recommended to start checking for Breast Cancer above the age of 40 with a yearly breast exam by your doctor and a yearly mammogram.
  • Family history: There are Breast Cancers that run in families and in different minorities. Some families carry a gene that specifically increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer (BRCA1 and 2) and we know that these are commonly seen in Ashkenazi Jews and Afrikaans women. In other families clusters of cancers like bowel and prostate through the generations point to an increased risk of Breast Cancers too.

Risk factors you can’t help:

  • Pregnancy: Nulliparity (not having children) or having children when you are over thirty is a significant risk factor for Breast Cancer. We know that a lot of Breast Cancers are driven by the hormones, and the hormones changes that occur during pregnancy have a lasting effect on your chances of getting Breast Cancer. Having one child at a young age does help protect against cancer, but after the age of 30 the risk is the same whether you have children or not.
  • Breastfeeding: After birth, breast-feeding of a considerable length of time has a protective effect on your breasts, but it is a marginal effect which is present if you breast-feed for one year or more. Having said that, the effect on your child is much much more with increased immunity, good bonding and long-term effects on weight control and intelligence also suggested. Breast feeding is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your child.
  • Early age starting your periods and late menopause: the length of time your body is under the effects of female hormones during your lifetime also affects your risk of Breast Cancer. If you have started your periods before 12 years, or had a late menopause after 55 years, you have an increased risk.

Risk factors you can change:

  • Obesity: Having an increased body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 after the menopause puts a woman at increased risk of getting Breast Cancer. At any point in life it also put you at increased risk of a number of other conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and joint problems. It is never too late to change your diet, increase your daily exercise amount and make it a target to lose a few kilos.
  • Alcohol: Women who classify themselves as heavy drinkers are also at increased risk for Breast Cancer. This means that they are consistently drinking more than four drinks (units) a day or seven drinks per week. Remember that heavy drinking is not the same as problem drinking and that a nice glass of wine in the evening is normally classed as two or even three units, and a bottle of beer is 1 ½ units. It becomes very easy to become a heavy drinker without realising.
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy: Studies in the USA and in the UK have shown that women are at increased risk of Breast Cancer if they are taking most types of HRT for more than five years. It is also true that the closer to the menopause you start taking HRT the higher the risk of Breast Cancer. In real terms if 30 in 10,000 menopausal women get Breast Cancer, 38 in 10,000 women taking HRT will get it. This has to be weighed against the potential benefits so it is important to speak to a sympathetic gynaecologist who may suggest other more natural methods of dealing with your menopause.

It is not just about changing your lifestyle to decrease your risk of cancer. It is also important to change your attitude and start to get wise about breast health.