October is breast cancer awareness month, so in today’s blog I’d like to talk about risk factors for breast cancer and ways to prevent it.
What are risk factors for breast cancer? Besides age and genetic factors, situations that increase estrogen in a woman are risk factors.
Older age: this is a risk factor for most cancers – the older you are, the higher the chances of developing cancer
You’ve had breast cancer or benign breast disease
Having mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, or having a first-degree relative (mother, sister or aunt) with breast cancer
Longer exposure of breast tissue to estrogen (endogenous or exogenous)
Starting periods early, such as before 11 years of age
Starting menopause late
Being older than 35 years when you get pregnant for the first time, or never having given birth at all (estrogen levels are lower during pregnancy)
Certain hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms (estrogen with progestin – this is different from estrogen-only therapy for women who have had hysterectomies, or estrogen-progesterone/bioidentical hormone therapy)
Radiation to breast or chest (including mammograms!)
Highest risk if radiation was given during puberty
Women with mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes may have an even greater increased risk from chest x-rays, especially if done before 20 years of age
Fat cells make estrogen
Alcohol (more than 3 drinks per week)
What are protective factors against breast cancer?
Pregnancy and breast feeding, because estrogen levels are lower during these times
Taking estrogen-only therapy after a hysterectomy, selective estrogen-receptor modulators (tamoxifen or raloxifene for osteoporosis), or aromatase inhibitors
Ovary removal (ovaries make estrogen)
We don’t know enough yet about birth control pills and breast cancer risk. Some studies show that these medications slightly increase breast cancer risk, and this decreases with time. Other studies show no increased risk.
So make sure to not smoke, drink less than 3 alcoholic drinks per week, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy weight. Keep x-rays of the chest to a minimum, and if you desire to have children, try to have them before you’re 35 years old, and make sure you breastfeed them. If you’re going through menopause, talk to me about bioidentical hormone replacement therapy to help with your symptoms safely.
There is an online breast cancer risk tool at https://www.cancer.gov/bcrisktool/ that you can use to calculate your individual risk.