What Causes Breast Cancer: Identifying the Risk Factors and Preventions | Max Hospital

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Breast Cancer: Understanding the Causes and Risk Factors

By Dr. Devavrat Arya in Cancer Care / Oncology

Jun 28 , 2024 | 7 min read


Breast cancer is one of the most prevalent cancers among women in India, and its cases have been increasing over the last couple of decades. According to the National Cancer Registry Programme, breast cancer accounts for 14 percent of all cancers in Indian women, and in urban areas, the incidence is even higher, with one in 22 women at risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetime. Moreover, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer in India is around 60%, which is lower than in many developed countries, making awareness about its causes and risk factors, and early detection all the more concerning for the Indian population. That’s why in this article, we explore the various causes and risk factors of breast cancer, to help you combat this formidable enemy. Let’s begin.

What are the Risk Factors and Causes of Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer arises from a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. While the exact cause remains unclear, research has identified numerous risk factors that can increase a person's likelihood of developing the disease. These risk factors can be broadly categorised into those that are within our control and those that are not.

Risk Factors You Can Control

  • Alcohol Use: Consuming alcohol is a significant risk factor for breast cancer. Studies have shown that women who consume more than one alcoholic drink per day have a higher risk of developing breast cancer compared to those who abstain or drink less. In India, where alcohol consumption among women is rising, it is crucial to be mindful of this risk.
  • Weight: Being overweight or obese, especially after menopause, increases the risk of breast cancer. Excess fat tissue can raise oestrogen levels, which in turn can promote the development of certain types of breast cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise is essential for reducing this risk.
  • Taking hormones: Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) used during menopause can increase the risk of breast cancer, particularly when taken for extended periods. Women considering HRT should discuss the risks and benefits with their healthcare provider to make an informed decision.
  • Reproductive history: Certain aspects of reproductive history can influence breast cancer risk. For instance, having children at a later age or not having children at all can increase the risk. Additionally, not breastfeeding or breastfeeding for a shorter duration can also contribute to higher risk. Promoting awareness about these factors can help women make informed reproductive choices.
  • A sedentary lifestyle: Lack of physical activity is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Regular exercise helps in maintaining a healthy weight and can also lower oestrogen levels, thereby reducing cancer risk. Encouraging an active lifestyle is crucial, especially in urban areas where sedentary habits are more prevalent.

Risk Factors You Can't Control

  • Gender: Being a woman is the most significant risk factor for breast cancer, although men can also develop the disease. The vast majority of breast cancer cases occur in women.
  • Age: The risk of breast cancer increases with age. Most cases are diagnosed in women over the age of 50. As life expectancy increases in India, the incidence of age-related breast cancer is also expected to rise.
  • Family history: Having close relatives, such as a mother, sister, or daughter, with breast cancer increases an individual's risk. Family history can indicate a genetic predisposition to the disease.
  • Genes: Mutations in certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, significantly elevate the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Genetic testing can identify these mutations, allowing for proactive measures to be taken.
  • Height: Taller women have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer. While height is not modifiable, being aware of this association can help in understanding overall risk.
  • Breast density: Women with dense breast tissue have a higher risk of breast cancer. Dense tissue can also make it more difficult to detect cancer on mammograms. Regular screenings and additional imaging tests can help in early detection.

Factors Not Related to Breast Cancer

It is important to note that not all factors commonly associated with health concerns are linked to breast cancer. For example, there is no consistent evidence that wearing bras, using antiperspirants, or having breast implants increases the risk of breast cancer.

What is Considered High Risk for Breast Cancer?

A person is considered at high risk for breast cancer if they have a combination of several significant risk factors, particularly those that cannot be controlled, such as a strong family history or genetic predisposition.

Women who have multiple first-degree relatives with breast cancer, those who carry BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, or those with a history of radiation therapy to the chest are typically categorised as high risk.

In such cases, regular screening and preventive measures, such as lifestyle changes and possibly prophylactic surgeries, are recommended for high-risk individuals to mitigate their risk.

How to Prevent Breast Cancer?

Preventing breast cancer involves a combination of lifestyle choices, regular screenings, and understanding personal risk factors. While it is not possible to eliminate the risk entirely, adopting healthy habits and staying vigilant can significantly reduce the likelihood of developing the disease. Here are some strategies for breast cancer prevention:

Lifestyle Changes

  • Maintain a healthy weight: Keeping a healthy weight is crucial, especially after menopause. Excess body fat can increase oestrogen levels, which is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. A balanced diet and regular exercise can help maintain an optimal weight.
  • Exercise regularly: Engaging in regular physical activity reduces breast cancer risk. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week, along with strength training exercises.
  • Limit alcohol consumption: Alcohol consumption is directly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Limiting alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day, or avoiding it altogether, can lower your risk.
  • Maintain a healthy diet: A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can support overall health and reduce cancer risk. Some studies suggest that a diet high in fibre and low in fat may also help in reducing breast cancer risk.
  • Avoid smoking: There is growing evidence that smoking is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, particularly in premenopausal women. Quitting smoking can improve overall health and reduce cancer risk.
  • Breastfeed if possible: Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer, especially if continued for a year or more. It also provides numerous health benefits for the child.

Medical Interventions and Screenings

  • Regular screenings: Early detection through regular mammograms can significantly improve the chances of successful treatment. Women over the age of 40, or younger women with high-risk factors, should discuss an appropriate screening schedule with their healthcare provider.
  • Genetic testing and counselling: For those with a family history of breast cancer or known genetic mutations (e.g., BRCA1, BRCA2), genetic testing and counselling can provide valuable information. Understanding your genetic risk can help you and your healthcare provider develop a personalised prevention plan.
  • Medication: For women at high risk of breast cancer, certain medications, such as selective oestrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) or aromatase inhibitors, may be recommended to reduce risk. These medications should be discussed with and prescribed by a healthcare provider.
  • Preventive surgery: In some cases, women at very high risk may consider prophylactic mastectomy (removal of healthy breasts) or oophorectomy (removal of ovaries) to significantly reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. This option requires careful consideration and consultation with healthcare professionals.

Awareness and Self-Examination

  • Be aware: Knowing the normal look and feel of your breasts can help you notice any changes early. Perform regular self-examinations and report any unusual changes, such as lumps, pain, or changes in size or shape, to your doctor immediately.
  • Stay informed: Keeping up-to-date with the latest information and guidelines about breast cancer can help you make informed decisions about your health. Attend health talks, read reliable sources, and engage in discussions with healthcare providers.

By implementing these preventive measures, you can reduce your risk of breast cancer and improve your overall well-being. Remember, early detection and proactive management of risk factors are key components in the fight against breast cancer.

Wrap up

Understanding the various risk factors of breast cancer, especially those within our control, can empower individuals to make informed decisions about their health. Regular screenings, healthy lifestyle choices, and awareness can significantly impact the early detection and prevention of breast cancer. If you have any concerns or questions about your breast cancer risk, waste no time in consulting a specialist at Max Hospitals, to receive personalised guidance and comprehensive support tailored to your individual needs.