October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it is as good a time as any to get yourself up to speed on the risk factors for getting breast cancer. Even though the strongest risk factor for developing breast cancer is age (risk increases as you get older), breast cancer can and does affect younger women, too. A National Cancer Institute report (NCI) estimates that a 30-year-old American woman has a 1 in 227 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer before she turns 40. An accumulating amount of research suggests that, if you have any of the risk factors listed below, the likelihood may be a little higher.
The good news? If breast cancer is found early, the outlook can be more favorable. I know this from experience.
I had my first mammogram when I was 40 — only to find out that I had breast cancer. My diagnosis came clear out of left field; I had no family history of breast cancer and was unaware that some of the risk factors applied to me. Fortunately, my cancer was spotted at an early stage — I didn’t need chemo or a mastectomy. Finding the cancer early made all the difference in the world because it didn’t have as much time to spread.
I’m so grateful for that mammogram. While I had to endure a course of medical treatment, it wasn’t nearly as onerous as it could have been since there wasn’t enough time for the cancer to invade.
But, had I known more, I could have been even more vigilant in my 20s and 30s. It pays to know these risk factors.
1Your breasts are dense.
You’ve always known that your breasts are special, but did you know that there’s a whole special category of breasts called “dense breasts?” A little biology lesson: your breast tissue is made up of milk glands, milk ducts, fatty tissue, and supportive tissue (called dense breast tissue). Some breasts have more dense tissue than others. Denseness isn’t related to breast size or firmness, and dense breasts can only be identified on a mammogram.
If your OB-GYN tells you that you have dense breasts, this simply means that your breasts have more dense tissue than fatty tissue. It’s really common to have dense breasts: about 40 % of women are in the dense breast club. Ask your mother if she has dense breasts — breast density is often inherited.
Early stage cancers tend to spread faster within dense breasts, and women with dense breasts have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer than other women. It’s still unclear to doctors exactly why dense breast tissue is linked to breast cancer risk.
Dense breasts also can be masters at hiding or disguising the cancer, making it harder to detect; the cancerous cells blend in with all the dense fibrous tissue within dense breasts, appearing normal on a mammogram (imagine having camouflage inside of your breasts). In some parts of the U.S and around the world, your doctor is legally obligated to tell you if your breasts are dense, hoping that this knowledge will lead you to go in for mammograms more often.
2You have a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer.
If you are able, ask your mom and grandma about your family history. If there are numerous occurrences of breast or ovarian cancer among your relatives, it might mean that your family passes on a specific gene mutation that can increase your risk of developing breast (and ovarian) cancer called the BRCA gene mutation. People who have inherited the BRCA gene mutation are more likely to get breast cancer, but by no means is it a done deal. The majority of breast cancer cases actually don’t have a genetic cause.
The good news is that you can qualify for a blood test that screens for the BRCA gene mutation, allowing you to take preventive action before breast cancer can develop, if it ever even does. (A positive result absolutely doesn’t mean that you have cancer or that you’ll even get it one day — but it does mean you can protect yourself.)
Risk factors that should motivate you to take the BRCA test include an inherited faulty gene has already been identified in one of your relatives, a very strong family history of breast cancer, or an Ashkenazi Jewish background (some gene mutations are seen three times more often in women of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage).
3You drink a lot of alcohol.
Did you know that alcohol can increase your body’s estrogen levels, as well as other hormones that are associated with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer? Alcohol can also increase breast cancer risk in another way — by damaging DNA in cells. Compared to women who don’t drink, drinking three alcoholic beverages a week can lead to a 15% higher risk of breast cancer.
And experts estimate that the risk of getting breast cancer goes up another 10% for each additional drink you regularly have each day. The American Cancer Society recommends that, if you choose to drink, you should have no more than one drink a day.
4You’ve never been pregnant.
It’s pretty upsetting to know that if you haven’t had a child by the time you’re 30, your risk of getting breast cancer is higher. This is because breast cancer is related to exposure to the estrogen hormone; having a child later in life allows your breast tissue to engage with higher levels of estrogen for longer periods of time. Believe it or not, the cells in your breasts are only considered “mature” once you’ve had a baby — and, unfortunately, “immature” breast cells are more sensitive to estrogen.
5You had your first period before you were 12 years old.
If your first period arrived sometime before you turned 12, research suggests that you have a slightly higher risk for developing breast cancer. A rise in hormones triggers the onset of puberty, and the time between puberty and a first full-term pregnancy is usually longer in a woman who started her period earlier. Similar to never having been pregnant, your breast cells are “immature” for a longer time, so your breast cancer risk increases.
Know these risk factors so that you can take advantage of preventive care.
For one, maintaining a healthy weight, eating well, and exercising regularly can all seriously reduce your chance of getting breast cancer, even if several of the risk factors apply to you. And with knowledge of these risk factors, you can do things like lower your alcohol intake, screen for the BRCA gene, perform more breast checks in the shower, and ask for more mammograms. I am living proof of how important early detection can be.