When we talk about breast cancer, we’re really describing the uncontrolled growth of breast cells. Someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer has a malignant tumor that has developed from abnormal cells in their breast, caused by factors including mutations in genes that are responsible for normally regulating the growth of cells.
Within someone's breasts, a tumor can form that is either benign (not dangerous or cancerous) or malignant (meaning it has the potential to be dangerous). A malignant tumor in someone's breast can wind up spreading beyond the original tumor to other body parts, including to the lymph nodes located near the armpits, making cancer harder to treat and control.
Although all types of cancers are linked to cellular abnormalities, according to BreastCancer.org, someone's lifestyle and age play a much bigger role in their risk of developing breast cancer than genetics do.
As the site explains, “Only 5-10% of cancers are due to an abnormality inherited from your mother or father. Instead, 85-90% of breast cancers are due to genetic abnormalities that happen as a result of the aging process and the “wear and tear” of life in general.”
How Common Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer that adults develop, especially women. Roughly 1 in 8 women in the United States — or 12% of all adult women— can expect to develop breast cancer over the course of their lifetime.
Older women are more likely to develop breast cancer than younger women, and a woman's risk only increases with age. Most women who develop breast cancer are over the age of 50.
Women develop this type of cancer much more often than men because women’s breast cells are constantly changing due to the effects of “female hormones” including estrogen and progesterone.
What Factors Increase Someone's Risk of Developing Breast Cancer?
While 12% of women develop some form of breast cancer at some point in their lifetime, an individual's risk is affected by many different factors.
These factors include: having a family history of breast cancer or other cancers, their reproductive history/whether they have had children, their lifestyle (diet, exercise routine, etc.), alcohol and tobacco consumption, and the environment they live in.
Researchers have learned that one of the most significant risk factors for breast cancer is having an inherited mutation in certain genes known as BRCA1 or BRCA2. For women with a BRCA1 mutation, the risk of developing breast cancer by age 80 is 72%, while for women with a BRCA2 mutation, the risk is about 69%.
Aside from genetics, other risk factors for breast cancer include:
Consuming more than “moderate” amounts of alcohol (two or more alcoholic drinks each day).
Being overweight or obese, fat tissue is the body’s main source of estrogen which can increase breast cancer risk.
Eating a poor diet, including one high in processed foods and trans-fats, but low in fiber, healthy fats, vegetables and fruits.
Exposure to high levels of estrogen over long periods of time, such as from taking combined hormone replacement therapy (estrogen and progesterone).
Long-term use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills) for more than 10 years.
A sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise.
Poor immune function, which can be worsened by high amounts of stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation.
How Can You Help Protect Yourself?
What are the most important breast cancer prevention strategies?
Research suggests there may be steps you can take to protect yourself from breast cancer, such as eating a healthy diet, exercising, avoiding obesity, and limiting exposure to estrogen sources outside of your body.
If you have a family history of cancer, especially breast cancer, be sure to also speak with your doctor about prevention steps.
Here are tips for minimizing your risk:
Avoid too much alcohol, having one or fewer drinks per day. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
Quit smoking if you currently do.
Maintain a healthy weight and BMI.
Eat a variety of anti-inflammatory foods regularly, such as several servings of vegetables and fruit per day (ideally more than 5 cups a day), along with whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil, fish, and beans.
Limit consumption of added sugar, processed foods, trans-fats, and saturated fats (to less than 10% of your total calories per day). Do this by avoiding processed meats, fast food, many frozen meals, many kinds of cheese, and smoked foods.
Exercise for 45-60 minutes at least 5 or more days a week, ideally by doing a combination of aerobic and strength training.
Support your immune system by keeping stress in check and getting enough sleep. Too much stress can actually alter hormone levels, so making relaxing activities a part of your regular routine, such as meditation, yoga, reading, journaling, and spending time in nature.
Do Self Exams Really Help?
Some, but not all, experts believe that regularly examining your breasts at home about once per month, which involves feeling and massaging them to check for any changes, can be an important way to find breast cancer early. This can sometimes translate to earlier intervention and treatment, which can be life-saving in some cases
While self-exams are encouraged, they are recommended to be used in combination with other screening methods, especially among people at high risk. It's important not to skip mammograms and other tests suggested by your doctor, such as ultrasounds and/or MRIs, in favor of self-exams.
While both standing up and laying down, use your hands to feel your breasts, covering the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side. Here's what you should look for when performing self-exams:
Changes in your breasts' usual size, shape, and color
Visible distortion or swelling
Unusual dimpling, puckering or bulging of the skin
Redness, soreness, rash, or swelling
Fluid coming out of your nipples
Lumps that you previously didn't have