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5 Things That Put You at Higher Risk for Breast Cancer

Cancer just happens. There is no rhyme or reason as to why some women and men get breast cancer—they just do.

Some people are at greater risk than others to develop breast cancer. Why is that?

Imagine having an extremely fertile garden with an abundance of flowers. Because the garden is so fertile, it also comes with the threat of growing dandelions and other weeds. Like a lavish garden that is particularly prone to growing weeds, many factors can make a woman more likely to develop breast cancer.

So, how do you know if your garden is fertile or at high risk(HI RESK) — More likely to develop breast cancer for dandelions? Here are a few ways.

1. Do You Have "The Gene?"

The most common and well-studied genes associated with increased risk of breast cancer are BRCA1(BRAK-AH-ONE) — An abnormal or mutated breast cancer gene that is passed down from parent to child and is associated with an increased chance of developing breast cancer and other cancers; Breast Cancer Gene One and BRCA2(BRAK-AH-TOO) — An abnormal or mutated breast cancer gene that is passed down from parent to child and is associated with an increased chance of developing breast cancer and other cancers; Breast Cancer Gene Two.

BRCA stands for breast (BR) cancer (CA).

Similar to the genes that determine the color of your eyes, BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are passed from parent to child.

Women who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have an 85% risk of developing cancer in their lifetime. This is why it is common to see multiple members of a family affected by cancer. However, only 5% of all patients diagnosed with breast cancer have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.1 Other inherited genes are linked to breast cancer, but these genes are less common.

It’s important to note that men can also inherit and pass these genes to children. Although the risk is smaller for men to have breast cancer, it can still happen.


2. Have You Had DCIS or LCIS?

Conditions like Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ (DCIS)A type of premalignant breast cancer; ductal carcinoma in situ and Lobular Carcinoma In-Situ (LCIS)A type of premalignant breast cancer; lobular carcinoma in situ are noninvasive(NON-IN-VAY-ZIV) — Something that does not penetrate or enter, premalignant(PRE-MA-LIG-NENT) — A growth that will worsen and grow into a cancer, becoming malignant if not removed lesions in the breast. They signal that a person has a very high risk to develop breast cancer in the future. DCIS and LCIS indicate that your garden is very fertile. Additionally, if DCIS or LCIS go untreated, they can become cancerous.

3. Have You Had Chest Radiation?

If you have received radiation(RAY-DEE-A-SHUN) — High energy waves used to treat cancer in a specific area of the body treatment to the chest and breast, you may be at higher risk as well. This is because radiation can cause changes (DNA mutation(D-N-A MU-TAY-SHUN) — Changes in the DNA that can lead to or cause cancer) in the cells that received the radiation.

Radiation to the chest is usually given for the treatment(TREET-MINT) — Techniques to help eliminate or control a disease of a different type of cancer, like lung cancer(LUNG CAN-SIR) — Abnormal growth that originates from lung tissue or Hodgkin Lymphoma. The breasts can receive some of the radiation if they are in the path of the radiation beams. The radiation can affect the breast tissue(TISH-YOU) — The accumulation of cells that make up parts of the body, like organs and lead to breast cancer years after being treated.

flowerpots by window

4. Are You Getting Older?

The probability of developing breast cancer greatly increases with older age. 1 in 15 of women over the age of 70 will develop breast cancer as compared to 1 in 53 women between birth and 49.2 A woman's risk gradually increases between 50 and 70+.

Aging can lead to changes like hormone(HORE-MOANS) — Chemicals or proteins in the body which control many bodily functions levels (menopause(MEN-A-PAUSE) — When estrogen levels fall and ovarian function is lost, leading to symptoms including hot flashes, mood changes, osteoporosis, and lack of menstrual periods) and weight, which are risk factors themselves. When you combine these (plus many other factors) with aging, a woman's risk significantly increases.

5. Many Other Reasons

There are many other factors that impact your risk of developing breast cancer. Some of these include weight, race, menopause status, and if you have had children. Although there are many more risks associated with breast cancer, some carry higher risk than others (like the ones we talked specifically about above).

For women who do not have BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, a history of chest radiation(CHEST RAY-DEE-A-SHUN) — An area of the chest that has been previously treated with radiation which suggests a higher risk for future breast cancer, DCIS, or LCIS, there is a tool called the Gail Model(GAIL MOD-OL) — A tool used to help estimate a patient’s risk of developing cancer using known risk factors. Many doctors use the Gail Model to calculate a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.3 You can take the Gail Model test yourself here.

There are other online calculators that can help you assess your risk for cancer. Some include BCRAPRO, Claus, and Tyrer-Cuzick.

No matter what your age, the first step in preventing breast cancer is knowing your risk. Then, you will be able to take action and choose the best prevention and screening(SKREE-NING) — Using a test to find a specific disease or condition at an early point in the course of a disease options for you. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor your specific risks, family history, and available preventive options. If you think you are at high risk because of personal history (breast cancer diagnosed before age 50) or a strong family history, consider seeing a genetic counselor for evaluation.

And as a friendly reminder, don’t skip your routine mammograms (or other screening tests)!
  1. Genetics of Breast and Gynecologic Cancers (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. National Cancer Institute. 
  2. Cancer statistics, 2017 - Siegel - 2017 - CA: A Cancer ... https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21387. Accessed December 17, 2018. 
  3. Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/bcrisktool/. Accessed February 14, 2017.
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