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What Causes Breast Cancer?

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

Breast cancer has been a high public and private research priority since 1971, when the United States first pledged to win the War on Cancer. Although we don’t yet know the exact cause of breast cancer, or why some women get it and others don’t, researchers have made headway in understanding multiple risk factors linked to the disease, and coming up with less disfiguring and harsh methods to treat it.

Despite the recent declines in the number of new diagnoses, statistics released by the National Cancer Institute are still alarming. One in eight women will be affected by breast cancer in her lifetime.

Breast cancer used to be seen as an inevitable death sentence. Things have improved for most of the women. Early detection clearly saves lives, but the disease is still claiming more women each year than any other cancer, except lung cancer.

When it comes to breast cancer prevention, there are risk factors you can’t change, and some you can. The biggest risk factor for getting breast cancer is being a woman. Men also get breast cancer, but according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it is about 100 times more prevalent in women.

Other significant risks include age, race and having a family history of breast cancer. Statistically, women 55 or older are more likely to get breast cancer than younger women, and African-American women are more likely than Caucasians to get breast cancer before menopause.

A woman doubles her risk of developing the disease if her mother, sister, or daughter has had breast cancer. The risk can go up if more than one first-degree relative has been affected. However, risk factors don’t tell the whole story. Data shows more than 85 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease, according to ACS.

Researchers have also identified two genes linked to inherited breast and ovarian cancers. These genes are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Each is a tumor suppressor gene, meaning under normal instances the genes keep cancer from forming.

In about 5-10 percent of breast cancer cases, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes turn harmful by mutating in a way that keeps old breast cells from dying off as they should. This greatly increases — but does not guarantee — the likelihood the cells can grow uncontrollably resulting in cancer. Genetic tests can identify if a woman or man is a carrier of BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations, and if found, several options are available to help a person manage their individual cancer risk.

The American Cancer Society has an up-to-date list of breast cancer risk factors, including some still under investigation.

Lynette Summerill, an award-winning writer and scuba enthusiast lives in San Diego, CA with her husband and two canine kids. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.


SEER Stat Fact Sheet. National Cancer Institute. Accessed 18 Oct. 2011 at:

National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet. BRCA1 and BRCA2: Cancer Risk and Genetic Testingaccessed 10/19/11 online at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/BRCA

Breast Cancer: CAUSES, RISK FACTORS, AND PREVENTION TOPICS. American Cancer Society. accessed 10/19/11 online at:

Reviewed October 20, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment3 Comments

Thank you for this, we need to educate all ladies!!!

November 1, 2011 - 10:05am

Hi Anonymous,
I can truly relate to your concern and fears. I was diagnosed with a rare form of a neuroblastoma, which at the time of diagnosis in November 2007, had spread from my nasal passages up the olfactory nerve to end as a mass the size of a softball on the frontal lobe of my brain.The malignant cancer spread to my right parotid gland and into 11 lymph nodes on both sides of my neck.

I have a strong family history of cancer, but not of this type of cancer.

In the last 4 years, I have had 3 major surgeries to remove the tumor masses, 2 intense courses of chemotherapy and three 7 week courses of radiation therapy. Over the 4 year period, I have been seen by 3 neurosurgeons and 3 ENT specialists/surgeons.

By God's good grace, finding the right physicians, my determination to beat the cancer and the power of prayer, the cancer has been in remission since September 2010.

My honest advice to you is no one knows if the cancer will return after surgery (and subsequent treatment if recommended). But with intervention, the prognosis is good. So much is known and still being discovered and tried in the field of cancer treatment, especially the treatment of breast cancer.

Keep a strong positive attitude. Have a focus goal, for me, it was my three children. I had to live for them. That goal helped me soldier on when the treatments seemed worse than the cancer.

As so many others, friends, family and strangers, kept me in their prayers, I will keep you in my prayers.


October 31, 2011 - 5:31am
EmpowHER Guest

I have been diagnosed with breast cancer in the last week,it is about 2 centemeters in size, What are my chances of it returning after surgery? I have a family history, my grandmother died from breast cancer, my mother had cancer of the esphagus and my sister had bladder cancer. THANK YOU FOR ANY ADVISE

October 28, 2011 - 5:55am
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