Breast Cancer

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Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer among women and affects approximately one million women worldwide. Breast cancer accounts for 30 per cent of all female cancers in the UK and approximately 1 in 9 women in the UK will get breast cancer sometime during their life.


Here are several factors that could affect your risk for Breast Cancer:

Weight gain. Studies show that weight gain is a risk factor for breast cancer after menopause. The link is estrogen, which is believed to promote the development of breast cancer. Fat tissue converts precursors in the body into estrogen, keeping the hormone in circulation even when ovarian production stops at menopause.


Alcohol. Women who consume even a few drinks per week raise their risk for breast cancer. Scientists aren’t sure why; it may be that alcohol raises estrogen levels or interacts with carcinogens.


Activity level. Exercise may help prevent breast cancer and its recurrence in a few ways, including by keeping weight down and decreasing the amount of estrogen in breast tissue.


Vitamin D. There’s evidence that vitamin D helps protect against several types of cancer, including breast cancer.


Hormone use. Because lifetime exposure to estrogen is a risk factor for breast cancer, there’s concern about women’s use of birth control pills and postmenopausal hormones. Discuss your risk with your doctor before taking these.


Breast density. Breast density is trumped only by age and certain gene mutations in the hierarchy of risk factors. Digital mammography has been shown to improve cancer detection in women with dense breasts.


Chemoprevention. Taking the anti-estrogen drug tamoxifen or raloxifene may cut the incidence of breast cancer in women at increased risk for the disease.


Inherited Risk. Up to 10 per cent of breast cancer in Western countries is due to an inherited factor. This factor can be passed on from either parent and some family members pass on the abnormal gene without developing cancer themselves. It is not yet known how many breast cancer genes there are, but to date, two specific breast cancer genes have been identified (BRCA1 and BRCA2).


Previous Breast Disease. Women with certain benign changes in their breasts are at increased risk of breast cancer. These women present with a breast lump, have an operation and the breast tissue removed shows severe overgrowth of the cells lining the breast lobule. The technical name for this type of breast condition is ‘severe atypical epithelial hyperplasia’. Although benign in itself, its occurrence in a particular woman multiplies her risk of developing breast cancer during her life by a factor of four.


Age at First Pregnancy. Having no children and being older at the time of the first birth both increase the lifetime incidence of breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer in women who have their first child after the age of 30 is about twice that of women having their first child before the age of 20.


The highest risk group are those who have their first child after the age of 35 and these women have an even higher risk than women who have no children. These observations indicate a ‘menstrual cycle effect’. During the monthly cycle a woman’s fluctuating hormone levels cause several changes within breast tissue, which are repeated every month.


These changes possibly encourage or amplify abnormalities in the cell repair processes within breast tissue, which can in some cases lead to breast cancer later in life.


Women who have fewer menstrual cycles before their first pregnancy, either through being older when they start menstruating or younger when they first get pregnant, run less chance of such an abnormality occurring.


Reproductive Factors. Women who start menstruating early in life or who have a late menopause have an increased risk of breast cancer. Women who have natural menopause after the age of 55 are twice as likely to develop breast cancer as women who experience the menopause before the age of 45.


Age. The incidence of breast cancer increases with age and doubles every 10 years until the menopause when the rate of increase slows. Approximately a quarter of breast cancers affect women under the age of 50, a half occur between the ages of 50 and 69 and the remaining quarter develop in women who are 70 years or older.


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