Breast cancer risk and prevention factors

Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon, Stuart Robertson from BMI The Meriden Hospital, discusses some of the main risk factors for breast cancer, and the lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK1, with around 55,000 new cases diagnosed each year2. The incidence is also rising, with 1 in 8 women and 1 in 870 men diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime3.

Be breast aware

It’s important to remain aware of your breasts. Regularly checking and then reporting any unusual changes helps to detect breast cancer early. Most breast changes aren’t cancerous, but fast diagnosis of breast cancer is important.

8 breast changes to look for

Try and get into the habit of checking your breasts once a month. A good time to check is a few days after your period ends, when your breasts are less tender and swollen.

  1. Irregularities in the normal size and shape of your breasts
  2. A lump in the breast, armpit or collarbone
  3. Change in texture of the skin (or puckering like an orange skin)
  4. Redness or rash around the skin or nipple
  5. Nipple inversion
  6. Nipple discharge
  7. Pain in your breast or armpit
  8. Swelling in your armpit or collarbone

What increases your risk of breast cancer?

There are several risk factors that can contribute to the development of breast cancer, but remember, many people with risk factors never develop it, and some people with no risk factors may still develop it.

1. Ageing - Getting older increases the risk of breast cancer, with most diagnoses occurring in women over 504. Although ageing is inevitable, you can remain breast aware by doing regular checks and getting to know your breasts, and reporting any breast changes to your doctor.

Breast cancer

2. Family history - Most breast cancers are thought to happen by chance, and research estimates that between 5-10% of breast cancers are caused by inheriting a faulty gene5. Having a mother, sister or daughter diagnosed with breast cancer increases the risk. When a relative develops it under the age of 50, the risk is higher.

3. Physical inactivity -There’s a small increased risk of breast cancer in those who are inactive6. Studies have shown that taking regular physical activity can reduce the chances of developing breast cancer7. Current recommendations are for 150 minutes of moderately intensive activity every week.

4. Drinking alcohol - Alcohol consumption - even in small quantities - has been found to increase the risk of many cancers, including breast8. A review of the evidence in 2012 concluded that having one drink a day could increase a woman’s breast cancer risk by 4%9.

5. Obesity - Being obese has been found to be a contributing factor to 12 different types of cancer, including breast cancer in post-menopausal women10. This may be due to an increase in hormones such as oestrogen and growth factors like insulin.

Whilst some risk factors such as ageing are unavoidable, there are things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.

How to reduce your risk

1. Exercise - Studies have shown that regular exercise can lower the risk of developing breast cancer11. The more active you are, the better. Exercise doesn’t have to mean recreational sports or going to the gym, it’s anything that gets you breathing harder and feeling warmer. Walking, cycling, swimming, gardening, doing housework or having a physically active job all count.

2. Reduce your alcohol intake - The less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk. The latest UK government guidelines recommend that men and women should drink no more than 14 units a week12

What does 14 units a week look like?
  • 6 x 175ml glasses of 13% wine
  • 6 x pints of 4% lager or ale
  • 6 x pints of 4.5% cider
  • 14 x 25ml measures of 40% spirits13

3. Maintain a healthy weight - Try and keep your weight within the healthy range through a combination of regular physical activity and by eating a healthy, balanced diet. Being a healthy weight not only reduces your risk of developing breast cancer, but of 11 other common cancers too. It also reduces your risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease14.

4. Breastfeeding - Studies have shown that breast feeding may reduce the risk of breast cancer (it is estimated that approximately 5% of breast cancer cases in the UK could be related to not breastfeeding2). It’s not clear why, but it could be due to breast cells becoming more resistant to cancerous changes, or to fewer menstrual cycles during breast feeding.

Breast screening

The UK Breast Screening Programme invites all women between the ages of 50-70 to attend every three years for a mammogram to try to identify any cancerous changes as early as possible15. Whilst the mammograms do not prevent breast cancer occurring, they help to detect changes early.

To find out more about breast cancer screening,
call us on 0808 101 0337 
or make an online enquiry.


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