Risk Factors


Risk factors can be anything that predisposes you to a certain type of illness or disease. It does not entirely mean that you will get the disease, should you have a certain type of risk factor. Some risk factors influence the disease outcome more than others. Some people can have plenty of risk factors, yet still not develop the disease, while some develop it even in the absence of any risk factors.

There are different types of risk factors. Some risk factors, such as age and race, cannot be changed. These are called non-modifiable risk factors. Some risk factors, such as a healthy diet and exercise, can be altered. These are then called modifiable risk factors.

When it comes to cancer, risk factors cannot tell us everything about the disease, but it can tell us something. For example, it can tell us at what age the cancer will be likely to set in, or it can tell us if we need to rethink and revamp our current lifestyle habits.  The risk of developing any type of cancer can change over a period of time, due to factors such as aging and quitting smoking. 

General risk factors for breast cancer:
  • Being female. Women are much more likely than men are to develop breast cancer
  • Increasing age. Your risk of breast cancer increases as you age. Women older than 60 have a greater risk than do younger women.
  • A personal history of breast cancer. If you've had breast cancer in one breast, you have an increased risk of developing cancer in the other breast.
  • A family history of breast cancer. If you have a mother, sister or daughter with breast cancer, you have a greater chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Still, the majority of people diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.
  • Inherited genes that increase cancer risk. These include genes BRCA 1 and 2. Everyone is born with these genes but faulty versions of these genes have been proven to cause breast cancer in susceptible individuals. It does not entirely mean that the cancer is inevitable and you will have breast cancer; it just means that these genes increase your risk of breast cancer and other types of cancer.
  • Radiation exposure. If you received radiation treatments to your chest as a child or young adult, you are more likely to develop breast cancer later in life.
  • Obesity. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of breast cancer, due to the higher amount of oestrogen circulating in your body.
  • Drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol may increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • Higher socioeconomic status. It is now established that women of higher socioeconomic status have an approximately two-fold risk of developing breast cancer. This is predominantly based on ecological and case-control studies, although the reason for this is still unknown, and it can differ in different parts of the world.
  • Breast density. Breast density decreases with age, and studies have consistently shown that higher breast density is linked with increased risk of breast cancer. This could be due to the fact that increased breast density is associated with reduced mammographic accuracy, since mammography measures breast density to detect any changes in the breast. Research is still underway to determine whether breast density may be modifiable by changing a woman’s hormones or diet.
  • Beginning your period at a younger age. Beginning your period before age 12 increases your risk of breast cancer.
  • Obese women. Obese women have a higher risk, but there was no evidence of a trend with increasing body mass index.
  • Being premenopausal. Risk is higher among premenopausal women (women who still have her menstruation) than among postmenopausal women of the same age.
  • Beginning menopause at an older age. If you began menopause after age 55, you're more likely to develop breast cancer.
  • Postmenopausal hormone therapy. Women who take hormone therapy medications that combine oestrogen and progesterone to treat the signs and symptoms of menopause have an increased risk of breast cancer. Oestrogen and progesterone are hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle in a woman. 
  • Having no children. Women who have children have a slightly lower risk of breast cancer than women who do not have children. And the risk reduces further the more children you have.
  • Having your first child at an older age. Women who give birth to their first child after age 35 may have an increased risk of breast cancer. The younger you are when you have your first child, the lower your risk.

Myths about causes of breast cancer which have no sufficient proven evidence:
  • Multiple pregnancies.

  • Coffee or caffeine intake.

  • Antiperspirants. Internet e-mail rumours circulating have suggested that toxins from antiperspirants will build up due to poor lymph circulation, therefore eventually leading to breast cancer. However, there is very little laboratory or population-based evidence to support this rumour. On the other hand, a large study of breast cancer causes found no increase in breast cancer in women who used underarm antiperspirants and/or shaved their underarms.

  • Underwire bras. Again, this myth has been propagated by e-mail rumours, citing poor lymph flow due to underwire bras, thereby leading to breast cancer eventually. There is no good scientific or clinical basis for this claim. Women who do not wear bras regularly are more likely to be thinner or have less dense breasts, which would probably contribute to any perceived difference in risk.

  • Abortion or miscarriage. Several studies have provided very strong data that neither induced abortions nor spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) have an overall effect on the risk of breast cancer.

  • Breast implants. Several studies have found that breast implants do not increase breast cancer risk, although silicone breast implants can cause scar tissue to form in the breast. Implants make it harder to see breast tissue on standard mammograms, because they are not transparent. Additional x-ray pictures called implant displacement views can be used to examine the breast tissue more completely. 

  • Night work. Several studies have suggested that women who work at night may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. This is a fairly recent finding, and more studies are looking at this issue.

  • Tobacco smoke. Most studies have found no link between cigarette smoking and breast cancer. Some studies have suggested smoking increases the risk of breast cancer, but this remains controversial.  An active focus of research is whether second-hand smoke increases the risk of breast cancer.

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Disclaimer: This blog is for the project of a humanities course in medicine and therefore it is for educational purposes only. The information provided in this site does not serve to replace the advice of your physician or healthcare provider and it is not a substitute for medical or professional care.

Note: All information provided in this site is derived from other reliable and credible websites as referenced.