Although the direct cause of breast cancer is still unknown, studies have identified certain factors that may increase your chances of having the disease.
Family history is important: if your mother, sister or daughter has had breast cancer you have a higher risk of having breast cancer. However, breast cancer in more distant relatives, such as your grandmother, cousin or aunt, increases your risk of having the disease only slightly.
Two genes, named BRCA1 and BRCA2, have been identified which can play a part in breast cancer. Women who inherit specific mutations in either of these 2 genes have a high risk of getting breast cancer.
The Australian Breast Cancer Family Study, a large study being conducted in Melbourne and Sydney, should answer some important questions about risk and BRCA1 and BRCA2 and hopefully lead the way to genetic testing for breast cancer risk.
Increasing age is the biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer: more than 70 per cent of cases occur in women over the age of 50. Your risk is at its highest after you reach 75 years of age.
If you become pregnant at a later age, have your first child after 30, or never have children, you will have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. If you began your periods before the age of 12 or finished menopause after the age of 55 you may also be at a slightly increased risk. The chance of having breast cancer is 2 to 4 times higher among women who had their first period before the age of 12 than those who did after they were 14.
Research to date seems to suggest that taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for 5 years or less has no effect on risk of breast cancer, but that taking HRT for 10 years or longer increases the risk of breast cancer, although this risk has to be weighed up against the benefits of taking HRT.
If you have had in situ breast cancer (early cancer that hasn’t spread beyond its place of origin) or invasive breast cancer in either breast before, you have a higher chance of developing breast cancer again.
Also, women with a higher number of milk ducts who have previously had a non-cancerous breast disease seem to have an increased risk of breast cancer.
There has been no conclusive evidence to support the theory that diet, for example, a diet high in fat, contributes to the development of breast cancer, despite much research. However, there is some evidence that alcohol consumption is linked to an increase in the risk of breast cancer. The higher the alcohol consumption the greater the risk.
Last Reviewed: 27 March 2001