Am I at Risk?
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Am I at Risk?

Having these risk factors doesn't mean that you will get cancer, but it pays to be diligent.

Risk factors may be the most troubling and confusing piece of the breast cancer puzzle. Studies show that some women with recognized risk factors do not get breast cancer. What's more, many women who get breast cancer have no known risk factors, other than the risk that accompanies getting older. But if you have any of the following known risk factors, it can't hurt to be extra diligent about having your breasts examined regularly.

Family medical history

If a woman's female relatives (on her mother's or father's side) had the disease, it may suggest a hereditary pattern of transmission that heightens the woman's own risk. If your mother, sister, or daughter develops breast cancer before menopause, you are almost three times more likely to develop the disease than a woman with no family history. If the cancer occurs postmenopausally, the risk is two and a half times greater. If it's an aunt or grandmother, it's one and a half.

If breast cancer runs in your family, there are genetic tests that determine whether or not you're carrying a mutation for the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2; however, the presence of these mutations is not as strong a predictor of risk as it was once considered. Studies show that while risk is considerably higher for women with mutations (around 50 percent, compared to 13 percent for women without), 90 percent of women who develop breast cancer don't have mutations. If you have both a mutation and a strong family history, before you consider genetic testing, discuss it carefully with your doctor.

Personal medical history

The risk of developing breast cancer may climb if a woman has previously had benign breast disease, such as fibrocystic breast disease. Also, if you smoke, are overweight and sedentary, or eat a high-fat diet, you may be at increased risk.

Reproductive history

Late menopause (after age 55) increases susceptibility. The risk is also greater for women who had their first period before age 12, and for those who have their first child after age 30 or have no children. These circumstances are believed to affect the exposure to sex hormones over the years that have an impact on breast tissue. The evidence regarding oral contraceptives is mixed. A recent review of past studies found that women currently taking the Pill have a slightly greater risk. Women who stopped taking it more than 10 years ago do not appear to have increased risk. Before you decide to go on or off the Pill, carefully assess your risk with your doctor.

Alcohol consumption

Alcohol increases blood estrogen levels, which may explain its effect on breast cancer (and may also explain its effect on heart disease). Check out the rest of our "Staying Healthy" recommendations. The American Cancer Society recommends no more than one alcoholic drink per day.

Current use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

This risk increases slightly with the age of the woman, but some studies show that use of HRT is not associated with higher risk. Prolonged use of HRT is associated with benefits to the heart and bones. However, other studies have shown increased breast cancer risk. Before you go on or off HRT, carefully assess your risk with your doctor.