Breast cancer: the risk factors and how to reduce them

Knowing how to identify signs of breast cancer is important for early diagnosis, but knowing the risk factors behind breast cancer can be just as important.

Breast cancer is a disease that we are all familiar with. With around 55,000 new cases diagnosed in the UK each year, it is not surprising that we all know someone who has been affected. Whether it has directly affected our families or friends, breast cancer is something that concerns us all – particularly women. While we hear a lot about the signs of breast cancer, and the various charitable events and treatments available, there is a lack of information about what we can do to prevent it. Recent statistics reveal that around 23% of breast cancer cases in the UK are preventable. It is therefore important that we are aware of what we can do to increase these odds.

While there is no exact science or guarantee that we’ll never be affected by breast cancer, and indeed other cancers, we can do what we can to reduce these chances.

In this article, we discuss the risk factors behind breast cancer so that you can take steps to reduce your risk of having to deal with the disease.

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is when some form of attribute – such as someone’s biological sex or their weight – or exposure to a substance, ingredient or environmental effect – such as alcohol, medication or pollution – leads to an increased risk of developing a particular illness, injury or disease. Other examples of risk factors include living with another condition (such as high blood pressure or diabetes), drinking water that isn’t safe or being overweight.

The major risk factors of breast cancer

There’s no exact cause behind why breast cancer happens. In fact, it’s often a combination of genetics, age, environmental factors and the way we live our lives. While we can’t change some of these things, we can reduce or mitigate many of the risk factors.

The genetic risk factors

Women, who generally have more breast tissue than men, are most at risk of developing breast cancer. However, men and all people with breast tissue are at risk. Essentially, the more breast tissue you have, the more at risk you are of developing breast cancer. This is particularly true of people who have more breast tissue than breast fat – known as ‘high breast density’. This ratio of tissue to fat is often tested via a mammogram (a breast x-ray) which is offered as part of the NHS breast-screening programme. Other breast conditions that can increase the risk of breast cancer include lobular neoplasia and atypical hyperplasia.

It’s understood that just under 400 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK every year. For more information on how breast cancer affects men, take a look at our informative article ‘Breast cancer: not just a female issue’.

In some cases, family history can play a part in your risk of developing breast cancer. This isn’t the case if there have been a few isolated cases of breast cancer in your family, but applies if there is a significant family history of breast cancer. This can be due to altered genes known as BRCA1 (BReast CAncer1) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer2). A person with the gene has a 50% chance of passing it onto their blood-related children (regardless of gender) and the gene comes with a significant risk of breast cancer. Those who carry inherited altered genes behind other genetic conditions, such as Cowden’s syndrome (PTEN altered gene) and Peutz-Jegher syndrome (STK11 altered gene) are also more at risk of developing breast cancer. Carrying these inherited altered genes will increase your risk of developing breast cancer, but that doesn’t mean that you will inevitably get the disease. Lifestyle and environmental factors also play a significant role in the likelihood of breast cancer happening.

Lifestyle and other risk factors

Diet and alcohol intake can be a factor in developing breast cancer. Overall, around 8% of breast cancers reported in the UK are caused by alcohol consumption. People who drink one alcoholic drink a day or more are most at risk and, as such, alcohol intake should be minimised. A diet that is high in saturated fat may also pose a risk when it comes to breast cancer and, as such, it should be kept within the daily recommended limits (currently set in the UK at 20g for the average woman aged 19-64, and 30g for the average man aged 19-64).

The Mediterranean diet – which generally consists of plant-based foods, fish (instead of red meats), nuts, whole grains and legumes – has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Smoking is another a risk factor that could be avoided – which is especially true for pre-menopausal women and those who have a significant family history of breast cancer.

Being overweight can also pose a breast cancer risk, particularly if you’ve been through the menopause, as oestrogen production can be increased which, in turn, elevates the risk of breast cancer. Alongside a regulated diet, being physically active can help you keep your weight down. This will not only reduce your risk of breast cancer, but your risk of developing other cancers and conditions too. Male breast cancer is around 30% higher in those with a higher body mass index (BMI). It is therefore important for both men and women to maintain a healthy weight.

Exposure to certain environments and pollution may also increase your risk of breast cancer – particularly ionising radiation (though this only accounts for 1% of new cases). While this research is not conclusive, it does so far suggest that those who are exposed to higher-than-average radiation levels over their lifetime may be at a higher risk. This can happen as a result of certain diagnostic tools – such as CT scans – and, as such, exposure should be minimised, if possible.

Hormone therapy at higher doses has been linked with breast cancer. Often this therapy is taken to counter symptoms of the menopause, and it is worth weighing up the risk of taking an increased dosage over the longer-term versus lower dosages in the shorter-term. Hormone therapy may also be taken long-term by people to raise their oestrogen levels – such as transgender women. As such, studies have shown that transgender women who take hormone replacement therapy have an increased risk of breast cancer over cisgender (when gender corresponds with a person’s birth sex) men, but still far less than cisgender women. Taking a contraceptive pill can also increase your risk of breast cancer, but the risk is relatively small. There are two main types – the combined pill (which contains both oestrogen and progestogen) and the mini-pill, known as the progestogen-only pill or POP. Those taking the combined pill have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer, though this risk falls again when the pill stops being taken. The POP pill, which is taken by less women, is harder to define. Though it is thought that it too, may slightly elevate a women’s risk of breast cancer.

Other ways to reduce your risks

Breast-feeding can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. While the reasons aren’t fully understood as to why, it could be something to do with the stability of oestrogen levels that occur as a result of irregular ovulating during breast-feeding. For those who have a significant family risk, or an elevated risk, of breast cancer, medication is available on the NHS to reduce the risks in the form of tamoxifen, anastrozole and raloxifene. These drugs are not to be taken lightly as they often come with many mild side effects. Lastly, a mastectomy (breast removal surgery) can also reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 90%.

For more information on what to expect after a mastectomy, read our useful article ‘What to expect after a breast cancer surgery’.

Better Healthcare supports those recovering from breast cancer

Whether it’s during bouts of chemotherapy and radiotherapy or following a pre-emptive or post-diagnostic mastectomy to negate breast cancer, it can be difficult to cope with the recovery process. The side effects of treatment, as well as the physical and psychological scars of surgery, can make even the smallest daily task seem like the highest mountain to overcome.

No-one should go through this process alone. Whether it’s due to their family being far away or not wanting to rely on their loved ones for support, many internalise their struggles and put themselves under pressure during the recovery process. At Better Healthcare Services, we like to provide people with an alternative: a discreet support service that sees clients receive high quality live-in and home care when they need it.

Our fully qualified carers can help you with daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning and self-care. They are there to listen to you if you need to talk through the issues and concerns that are on your mind. For more information on how our care team can help you through your recovery period, call us on 0800 668 1234 to talk to one of our customer service members or get in touch with your local Better Healthcare office.

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