Menu: Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Understanding Your Risk for Breast Cancer
All young women should be vigilant about their breast health. The information on this page will help you better understand risk factors, manage your health and connect to other young women at high risk.
Your Risk Factors
Doctors use the term “risk factor” for anything that increases your chances of getting a disease. For example, smoking raises a person’s risk for several cancers, including lung cancer.
No one truly knows what causes breast cancer. However, some risk factors for breast cancer include:
- Being female
- Getting older
- Having a family or personal history of breast cancer
- Having certain types of benign (non-cancerous) breast disease
- Getting radiation to the chest
- Beginning your period before age 12
Lifestyle factors that may increase risk include alcohol use, obesity and lack of physical activity.
Having a risk factor—or even several—doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get a disease. It just increases your chances. It is possible for people with cancer risk factors to remain healthy all their lives. Conversely, most people who get cancer don’t have any presently known risk factors.
Family History of Breast Cancer
Family history and genetics are two risk factors for breast cancer. While researchers continue to search for the definite causes of breast cancer, some consider young women at high risk for breast cancer if they have either a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer and/or genetic mutations associated with breast cancer.
All cancers come from genetic mutations. Usually, these happen in specific cells during a person’s life. In some cases, however, people inherit mutations that can influence cancer. When these mutations help cause breast cancer, doctors call it hereditary breast cancer.
Hereditary breast cancer may be indicated by a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer. This could mean two or more relatives with breast or ovarian cancer, a relative with both breast and ovarian cancer, a male relative with breast cancer or a relative diagnosed at a young age with breast cancer.
Mutations to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 (breast cancer 1 and 2) genes, that normally help control cell division, are the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer. Mutations in either BRCA1 or 2 substantially increase an individual’s risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Other genetic mutations may also increase the risk of breast cancer, although they are much less common and do not raise your risk as much as BRCA1 and 2.
Non-BRCA mutations are also less studied, making it unclear what can be done if a woman has them. Read more on non-BRCA mutations.
Genetic counselors can help you understand your risks, your family history and the implications of getting genetic testing. Genetic testing can help you make more-informed decisions about your health, whether you are at high risk or already have breast cancer.
If you are at high risk for hereditary breast cancer, you have options for protecting yourself. Take your time and gather accurate information about these very personal decisions. Options include:
- Medicine or chemoprevention
- Preventive or prophylactic surgery to remove breasts and/or ovaries
- Surveillance with MRI or ultrasound to detect breast cancer early
If you already have breast cancer and tests show a hereditary mutation, this information can still inform and improve your healthcare decisions and treatment. Your test results can also help your family members understand their risk.
Connections and More Information
For more information on hereditary breast cancer and tools for tracking your doctor visits and test results, download our Newly Diagnosed Navigator.
You can also:
- Connect with FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered), a nonprofit for people with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
- Connect with Bright Pink, a nonprofit focused on prevention and detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women, with support for high-risk young women.
- Find genetic counselors on the National Cancer Institute website or through the National Society of Genetic Counselors.
Connect with Others
Find women who know what it’s like to face breast cancer at a young age. The YSC community makes it easy to find and connect with other young survivors and co-survivors.