Cancer Awareness

Understanding Breast Cancer Risk (And What You Can Do About It)

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Whether it’s a local news segment on obesity or a healthy eating article shared by your Great Aunt Sue via Facebook, there’s a lot of information to sift through surrounding the risks of breast cancer. With so much content to digest, it can be difficult (and sometimes scary) to determine how likely you are to experience a disease that affects 1 in 8 women – or 12-13 percent of the female population – at some point in their lives.

“It’s important for every woman to know what she’s up against regarding breast cancer,” says Jessica Bensenhaver, M.D., a breast cancer surgeon with Henry Ford Health System.  “But the most important things you can do are to be a self-advocate and attend your annual screening.”

To help determine what else you can (and can’t) do to reduce your risk of contracting breast cancer, we asked Dr. Bensenhaver to outline the most crucial risk factors that every woman should be familiar with.

Breast Cancer Risk Factors You CAN Control

Obesity: Numerous studies have shown that not maintaining a healthy weight can increase your risk for many types of cancer, and breast cancer is no exception, Dr. Bensenhaver says. According to the National Cancer Institute, among postmenopausal women, those who are obese have a 20 to 40 percent increase in risk of developing breast cancer compared with normal-weight women.

Alcohol Consumption: Consuming one alcoholic drink per day increases your chances of getting breast cancer by at least five percent, according to the American Cancer Institute for Cancer Research. Two to three drinks per day raises your risk by 20 percent. Solution? “Minimize your alcohol consumption,” Dr. Bensenhaver says.

Exercise: Everyone knows regular exercise leads to a variety of health benefits, and although it’s no cancer cure, it is linked to reduced risk. The American Cancer Society recommends adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity every week, ideally spread throughout the week.

Breastfeeding:  Although the reasons behind it are still uncertain, multiple studies have recently demonstrated that women who breastfeed have a lower risk of breast cancer. How long is breastfeeding necessary to reap the benefits? “Even just a couple of months can lower your risk,” Dr. Bensenhaver says.

Hormone Use After Menopause: In 2002, researchers discovered a connection between Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and increased breast cancer risk. Although some women still use HRT to ease postmenopausal symptoms like hot flashes, Dr. Bensenhaver says the takeaway is simple: Avoid taking HRT.

Breast Cancer Risk Factors You CAN’T Control

Family History: Most women know that if their mother or sister has been diagnosed with breast cancer, they’re at a higher risk. That knowledge shouldn’t be taken lightly. “Having one first degree relative with a history of breast cancer puts you at a higher risk,” Dr. Bensenhaver says. “Having two increases your risk even more.”

Age: “In general, when we talk to women about breast cancer risk, we give them the 1 in 8 figure, which is the general lifetime risk,” Dr. Bensenhaver says. “If you divide that by decade, though, it’s actually lower initially, and the older you get, it gets significantly higher.” At age 30, for example, 1 in 217 women are likely to get breast cancer; at age 40, the figure is 1 in 67. (For a complete breakdown by age, click here).

Genetic Mutation (BRCA1 and BRCA2): Short for BReast CAncer genes 1 and 2, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the best known genes linked to breast cancer risk. “If your cells contain a mutation of either of these genes, you have an eight out of 10 chance of getting breast cancer at some point in your life,” Dr. Bensenhaver says. In the U.S., five to 10 percent of breast cancers are related to an inherited gene mutation.

Race/Ethnicity: Breast cancer risk varies slightly by race/ethnicity. “White Americans are traditionally more likely to get breast cancer, as opposed to African Americans,” Dr. Benesenhaver says. “If you’re younger than 45, though, African Americans are at a higher risk.”

Breast Density: In addition to increasing your risk of breast cancer, having dense breast tissue can make it harder for mammograms to detect the disease. But that doesn’t mean signs of breast cancer can’t be detected. “Oftentimes, lesions that aren’t seen on mammogram due to dense breasts will show up on ultrasound or another screening modality like screening tomosynthesis, also known as 3D mammograms,” Dr. Bensenhaver explains.

Related Topic: 9 Important Screenings Every Woman Should Get

Regardless of your risk factors — controlled or not — getting your annual mammogram is crucial, Dr. Bensenhaver says, and women should feel comfortable talking to their doctor about changes in their health.

“If you have a concern, or if you feel or see something, do something about it,” Dr. Bensenhaver says. “Don’t put it off; Don’t wait for your screening. If you notice something, contact your provider and address it now. Don’t wait two-three months, even if your screening is coming up. An earlier diagnosis allows for more treatment options and a better prognosis.”

For more information on breast cancer or to schedule a mammogram today, visit henryford.com/breastcancer.

Dr. Jessica Bensenhaver is a breast cancer surgeon specializing in benign and malignant breast diseases. She is also the Director of the Breast Oncology Program at Henry Ford Health System.