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Breast Cancer Risk Factors

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The truth is that all women are at risk of breast cancer, but some of us are at a higher risk than others; understanding our risk helps us take better care of our breast health. The following risk factors have the greatest evidence behind them and clearly affect your breast cancer risk.


  • Your current age, age at 1st period, and age at menopause. Age matters. Getting older is an important factor that increases risk. That being said, younger women are at risk too. Even women in their 20’s can get breast cancer. Women who started having periods before age 12 have a higher risk of breast cancer than those whose periods started after age 14. Women who go through menopause after age 55 have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who go through menopause by age 45.
  • Alcohol use. Women who have 2-3 alcoholic drinks per day have a 20% higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who don’t drink alcohol.
  • Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Women with Eastern European Jewish ancestry are more likely to have BRCA gene mutations, which put them at a higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Breast density on a mammogram. Women who have dense breasts (roughly half of us!) are 4-5 times more likely to get breast cancer. This isn’t about how dense your breasts feel–it’s about how they look on a mammogram.
  • Breastfeeding. Women who breastfeed at some point in their lives have a lower risk of breast cancer than those who don’t. The risk is even lower for women who haven’t started menopause and for those who breastfeed for a total of 2+ years.
  • Family history of breast, ovarian, or prostate cancer. Women with one or more members of their family (on their mother’s or father’s side) with breast, ovarian, or prostate cancer are at a higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Having children. Breast cancer risk is slightly lower for women who gave birth to a child by age 35 compared to women who never had children or had their first child after 35.
  • Having had cancer before. If you’ve ever had cancer, your risk of getting breast cancer is higher. This is true if you’ve had non-invasive cancer (ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS), invasive cancer or certain other types of cancer.
  • Inherited gene mutations (like BRCA1 or BRCA2). BRCA1/2 mutations greatly increase the risk of breast cancer. How greatly? In a group of 100 women without a mutation, about 7 will get breast cancer by age 70. In a group of 100 women with a BRCA1/2 mutation, 45-65 of them will get breast cancer. Still, BRCA1/2 mutations are rare–about 1 in 400 people in the U.S. have one.
  • Radiation exposure at a young age. Women who’ve been exposed to large amounts of radiation, like radiation therapy for another type of cancer, are at a higher risk of breast cancer. In general, the more radiation a person is exposed to and the younger they are when they’re exposed, the greater their risk.

Your healthcare provider can calculate your breast cancer risk with several assessment tools. If you are considered high-risk, you may need heightened screening such as breast MRI + be offered risk-reducing drugs, such as Tamoxifen. Everyone’s situation is different, so the most important thing you can do is learn about your risk and make a plan with your healthcare provider!

Dr. Birkholz and I are accepting new patients, and we’d love to meet you to help optimize your breast health and other health care needs.

You don’t need to be a member of the practice to access this important care!  To learn more, give us a call at 616-345-5263!

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