According to the non-profit organization BreastCancer.org, the rate of breast cancer incidences in the United States has been steadily decreasing since 2000. Between 2002 and 2003, it dropped by 7%. Many experts theorize that one reason for the decline is the fact that women and their doctors are more aware of the dangers of using Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) medications on a long-term basis.
At Choose Hope, we use our blog to share stories about breast cancer patients and to share useful information about the disease with our readers.
If your child, father, mother or sister are diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. This is especially true if your first-degree relative is diagnosed with breast cancer before she turned 50.
Women Who Were Previously Diagnosed with Breast Cancer
Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast are more likely to develop breast cancer in the other breast. The risk factor is higher if there are abnormal cells – including atypical hyperplasia, LCIS (Lobular Carcinoma in Situ), and DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ).
Menstrual History and Childbirth History
Women who have their first period before the age of 12 and women who don’t go into menopause until after they are over the age of 55 have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
The age at which a woman had her first child is another factor that increases breast cancer risk. Women who have their first child in their mid to late 30’s or later have a higher risk factor. Likewise, women who never give birth are also more likely to develop the disease.
Genetic Alterations That Increase Risk
BreastCancer.org explains that everyone has the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. In healthy people, those genes exist to repair cell damage and to ensure that all of the cells that affect breast and ovarian health stay healthy and can repair damage when or if it occurs. Genetic anomalies in either gene, but in particular, in the BRCA1 gene, result in mutations that are handed down from generation to generation.
According to the American Cancer Society, in families where there is an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 gene, the average risk of developing breast cancer lies between 55 and 65%. In some families, however, that risk jumps to 80%. Moreover, in cases where genetic testing shows a link between breast cancer and the BRCA1 mutation, the disease occurs more often in younger women (under the age of 30,) and both breasts. Mutations in the BRCA2 gene reduces the risk of developing breast cancer to a significantly lower rate of roughly 45%.
Anyone can have genetic mutations that increase their likelihood of developing breast cancer at some point during their lifetimes, but having a genetic mutation doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the disease. There is evidence that throughout the United States, genetic mutations in the BRCA genes are most common among Jews, and in particular, Jews whose DNA is unique to Ashkenazi Jews who came over from Eastern Europe.
Environmental and Lifestyle Risks
You may not have any control over your family health history or the genetic markers that increase the risk of breast cancer, but there are some lifestyle practices and behaviors that can be changed to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.
There are other factors that you may or may not be able to change, but knowing what they are, and how they affect your lifetime risk will empower you to do things to lessen your risk of getting the disease.
Certain oral contraceptives increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer because of the hormones they contain and the way they work in the body. If you are currently using birth control pills, talk to your doctor about your risks, and about re-evaluating your birth control options on a regular basis.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
Many women opt to use hormone replacement therapy once they approach the age of menopause. HRT is supposed to minimize the unpleasant physical and emotional effects of menopause that can interfere with life enough to be a disruption. The use of HRT should be a concern for women whose known risk factors put them in the high-risk category. Talk to your doctor about the safety of continuing to use these medications and about alternatives that may not pose a danger.
Having Dense Breasts
The CDC describes dense breasts as breasts where there is less fatty tissue and more connective tissue. Dense breasts increase the likelihood that a woman will get breast cancer. They also make it harder to see abnormalities on mammograms. The National Breast Cancer Foundation notes that some states have passed laws that require doctors to let them know if their mammogram reveals that they have dense breasts.
Other lifestyle and environmental factors that have an impact on your risk of developing breast cancer include postmenopausal weight gain, physical inactivity and alcohol consumption. These factors matter for everyone, but for women who are already predisposed to developing the disease, taking responsibility for the things you can control is critical.
Unfortunately, genetic testing is so expensive that many insurance companies refuse to pay for it, even for women who, because of family history and other factors, are considered “High-Risk Patients.” Talk to your doctor about what you need to do to stay healthy and get the proper screening. For now, we can all do our part to push for proper screening and genetic testing and to spread the word about breast cancer awareness.