October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It is important to recognize that there are several risks factors besides having a family member who has had breast cancer.
Many people believe that they are risk-free if there is no cancer in their family or because their mom/aunt/sister has never had breast cancer. Unfortunately, this is just not true.
Risk factors are often categorized into those that one cannot change and those that are modifiable.
Starting with family history, you cannot change the genes you were born with. There are certain genes that families carry, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation, which increases your chances.
There are other genes that can play a role too, which is why having a first degree female relative with breast cancer also increases your risk.
You cannot change your age or your gender. Incidentally, just being a woman and having breasts puts you at risk.
As a matter of fact, gender is the number one risk factor – not family history. Age is also important as the older a woman gets, the more her chances increase which makes the modifiable factors that much more important to attend to.
You cannot change your exposure history – especially to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) that was taken by mothers in the 1940s through the 1960s to prevent miscarriage.
The daughters, granddaughters and potentially even great-granddaughters born with DES exposure have an increased risk of breast cancer. Ask your mom and grandma if there is a history of DES in your direct lineage.
You cannot change the day you start your period nor can you really predict when you will go through menopause completely. Both are important risk factors. The earlier you start your period (before 12 years old) and the later you go through menopause (55 years old and later) the more cycles of hormones your breasts are exposed to, which can affect cancer.
What do you have control over when it comes to breast cancer?
You can control when and if you have children.
Not having kids or having them after 30 years old will slightly increase your risk because your breasts are exposed to that many more cycles of hormones.