Breast Cancer

  • Medical Author:
    Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP

    Dr. Balentine received his undergraduate degree from McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He attended medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine graduating in1983. He completed his internship at St. Joseph's Hospital in Philadelphia and his Emergency Medicine residency at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, where he served as chief resident.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Pink Ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Quick GuideBreast Cancer Pictures Slideshow: A Visual Guide to Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Pictures Slideshow: A Visual Guide to Breast Cancer

What causes breast cancer?

There are many risk factors that increase the chance of developing breast cancer. Although we know some of these risk factors, we don't know how these factors cause the development of a cancer cell.

What are breast cancer risk factors? How do you get breast cancer?

Some of the breast cancer risk factors can be modified (such as alcohol use) while others cannot be influenced (such as age). It is important to discuss these risks with a health-care provider anytime new therapies are started (for example, postmenopausal hormone therapy).

The following are risk factors for breast cancer:

  • Age: The chances of breast cancer increase as one gets older.
  • Family history: The risk of breast cancer is higher among women who have relatives with the disease. Having a close relative with the disease (sister, mother, daughter) doubles a woman's risk.
  • Personal history: Having been diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast increases the risk of cancer in the other breast or the chance of an additional cancer in the original breast.
  • Women diagnosed with certain benign breast conditions have an increased risk of breast cancer. These include atypical hyperplasia, a condition in which there is abnormal proliferation of breast cells but no cancer has developed.
  • Menstruation: Women who started their menstrual cycle at a younger age (before 12) or went through menopause later (after 55) have a slightly increased risk.
  • Breast tissue: Women with dense breast tissue (as documented by mammogram) have a higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Race: White women have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, but African-American women tend to have more aggressive tumors when they do develop breast cancer.
  • Exposure to previous chest radiation or use of diethylstilbestrol increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Having no children or the first child after age 30 increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Breastfeeding for one and a half to two years might slightly lower the risk of breast cancer.
  • Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Use of oral contraceptives in the last 10 years increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Using combined hormone therapy after menopause increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Alcohol use increases the risk of breast cancer, and this seems to be proportional to the amount of alcohol used.
  • Exercise seems to lower the risk of breast cancer.
  • Genetic risk factors: The most common causes are mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (breast cancer genes). Inheriting a mutated gene from a parent means that one has a significantly higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/25/2016

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