Despite the advances in science and technology and the development of more sophisticated means to diagnose and treat diseases, it is still difficult to determine what actually causes breast cancer. Scientists have so far only successfully identified the risk factors that increase the probability of anyone acquiring the disease.
Since a majority of breast cancer cases occur in women, gender is considered the biggest risk of having the disease.
A critical factor also is age. As a woman grows older, she has a higher risk of developing the disease, though the cancer can develop at any age. A 60-year-old woman has a one in 30 chance of developing breast cancer in the next 10 years. Annual breast cancer rates show that around 80% of breast cancer cases are in women over 50 years old. For the women in the 40 to 45 age bracket, the highest ranked cause of death was breast cancer. Except for those who are predisposed to cancer because of their family history, breast cancer is uncommon in women who are younger than 35.
For a woman who has had breast cancer, the chances of her other breast developing cancer as well is very high. It should be noted that the new cancer occurs not because the first metastasized or spread, but it developed from a new cancer location.
The risk of developing cancer of the breast is twice as high for a woman whose sister, mother or even daughter has had the disease. If the incidents of breast cancer in the family developed in several family generations, has developed in both breasts in previous cases, or was discovered before menopause, the probable risk increases 4 to 5 times more.
Statistics show that 5% to 10% of all recorded cases of cancers of the breast are hereditary. Though white women in the U.S are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than African American women, scientists have identified specific mutations in the genes that can increase the risk of breast cancer in women. For some, there is also a likelihood of developing both breast and ovarian cancers.
Other genes may also be associated with breast cancer, some of which directly influence the risk of breast cancer while others, can just affect the general processes of cancer growth and metastasis.
Other factors that increase the risk of women developing breast cancer involve the length of time a female is exposed to estrogen sex hormones. This includes women who have a medical history of late menopause, had the onset of their menstrual period before 12 years old, have never gotten pregnant, got pregnant beyond 30 years old or used oral contraceptives or pills for birth control.
In countries with high dietary intake of fat, being overweight or obese is a known risk factor for breast cancer, particularly in postmenopausal women.
The use of alcohol is also an established risk for the development of breast cancer. Women who consume 2 to 5 alcoholic beverages per day have a 1 1/2 times higher risk than that of nondrinkers. The higher the consumption of alcoholic drinks per day, the more elevated the risk.
Studies have shown that regular exercise may actually reduce a woman's risk of developing breast cancer, but they have not established how much activity is needed for a significant reduction in risk. The Women's Health Initiative (WHI) study showed that 1 hour and 45 minutes to 2 and a half hours per week of brisk walking can reduce a woman's breast cancer risk by 18%.
Women are predisposed to develop cancer of the breast if breast changes have been diagnosed as benign in a biopsy and have been identified as hyperplastic or of the proliferative type.
Lastly, women who have received radiation treatment or radiation therapy before 30 years of age have a significantly higher rate of breast cancer than the general population.
Since the specific causes for breast cancer have not been identified, it is best that women understand the risks that increase the probability of developing breast cancer and should make extra efforts to know the latest developments in science that can help lower the probability of the cancer developing.