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