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Risk Factors for Developing Breast Cancer

16 Jul

Risk Factors for  Developing Breast Cancer

by Cynthia Greb

June 28, 2011

Ever since reading my Radiology Report, I have been thinking about that “nodule is concerning based on patient’s history” part.

So I did a bit of research about what constitutes risk factors for breast cancer.  The following is an abridged summary from the website:

  • Your risk of developing breast cancer increases as you get older. About 1 out of 8 invasive breast cancers are found in women younger than 45, while about 2 out of 3 invasive breast cancers are found in women age 55 or older.
  • BRCA1 and BRCA2: The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes….  In the United States BRCA mutations are found most often in Jewish women of Ashkenazi (Eastern Europe) origin, but they can occur in any racial or ethnic group.
  • Having one first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer approximately doubles a woman’s risk. Having 2 first-degree relatives increases her risk about 3-fold.
  • Women with denser breast tissue (as seen on a mammogram) have more glandular tissue and less fatty tissue, and have a higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Proliferative lesions with atypia: In these conditions, there is excessive growth of cells in the ducts or lobules of the breast tissue, and the cells no longer appear normal. They have a stronger effect on breast cancer risk, raising it 4 to 5 times higher than normal.
  • Women with lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) have a 7- to 11-fold increased risk of developing cancer in either breast. (Some call this a pre-cancerous condition.)
  • Women who have had more menstrual cycles because they started menstruating at an early age (before age 12) and/or went through menopause at a later age (after age 55) have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Women who, as children or young adults, had radiation therapy to the chest area as treatment for another cancer (such as Hodgkin disease or non-Hodgkin lymphoma) are at significantly increased risk for breast cancer.
  • Women who have had no children or who had their first child after age 30 have a slightly higher breast cancer risk.  Some studies suggest that breast-feeding may slightly lower breast cancer risk, especially if breast-feeding is continued for 1½ to 2 years.
  • Studies have found that women using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) have a slightly greater risk of breast cancer than women who have never used them.
  • Using combined hormone therapy after menopause increases the risk of getting breast cancer. It may also increase the chances of dying from breast cancer. This increase in risk can be seen with as little as 2 years of use. Combined HT also increases the likelihood that the cancer may be found at a more advanced stage, possibly because it reduces the effectiveness of mammograms by increasing breast density.
  • The use of alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Being overweight or obese has been found to increase breast cancer risk, especially for women after menopause.
  • Evidence is growing that physical activity in the form of exercise reduces breast cancer risk. The main question is how much exercise is needed. In one study from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) as little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking reduced a woman’s risk by 18%. Walking 10 hours a week reduced the risk a little more.

Of the 14 listed above, I have 7 – 8 risk factors.  In addition, I would add two more risk factors based on my own research and intuition.

  • As a child, I was given Lebanon bologna sandwiches in probably 90% of the lunches I took to school.  Processed meats are most emphatically not good for us.  Like the bacon that I dearly love and have eaten too often as an adult, sodium nitrite is an incredient. Sodium nitrate/nitrite is a cancer-causing ingredient.
  • I lived in Harrisburg at the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear incident.  I was home for spring break when the accident actually happened, but I was back within a week (and nervous about it, to be honest.)

Let me address some of the above factors individually.

  1. Obviously I can do nothing about my age or the time I began menstruation or menopause.  And at this point it would not improve my risks to have a child or to breastfeed, even if I could.  (At the time of this writing, I am 53, I am still having my periods, and I have never born a child.) The American Cancer Society reports that fewer menstrual cycles improve one’s chances of avoiding breast cancer.  Obviously pregnancy, breastfeeding, and earlier menopause mean fewer menstrual cycles over the course of one’s lifetime. (Interestingly, of the ten women I can think of who have had breast cancer, four have been single and without children.  However these four have also been among the survivors.)
  2. Nor can I do anything about the fact that I may or may not have Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors.  (No one who looks at me would think I was Jewish.  Nor would my own family, in fact.  However I’ve been doing genealogical research and I have a strong suspicion that my paternal grandmother’s ancestors were Jewish.  Her parents’ surnames were Lunger and Albeck.  It is the Lunger line in particular which I have been researching.)
  3. I was on the pill for 11 years.  If I had realized it was a risk factor in developing breast cancer, I’d like to think I would have gone off it much sooner.  Especially because I badly wanted a child for most of those years.  (That’s another story.)
  4. Obviously, two factors I DID  and DO have control over are my weight and the amount of exercise I get.  I have been in remarkably wonderful health my whole life, however at the age of about 40, I began to gain weight.  I’m still trying to figure out why it began.  Certainly at one point my life became more sedentary.  And I confess I became more indulgent in my food choices.   When I did cook, I prepared lots of healthy unprocessed food, however I began to eat out more often (including, I’m embarrassed to say, at fast food places.)   In addition, for quite a while I developed an unfortunate addiction to Pepsi.  The following is no excuse, but as one who has had financial challenges for much of my life, let me tell those of you who make a decent income that it is MUCH harder for those of us with minimal income to 1) eat healthy, and 2) get exercise.  Meats and vegetables, fruits and yogurts are much more expensive than a fast food meal.  Sodas are more filling than water.  This is one reason why poorer people in this country tend to weigh more.  In addition, healthy eating often takes time.  If one is working more than one job and/or taking care of children in addition to working, there is less time and energy for cooking good meals.  (Those are not my excuses, but in this moment I am defending the poor who are overweight to those who would judge them.)  And although one can certainly walk and jog for free (and I certainly did do a fair amount of walking throughout my life), gym memberships, Pilates classes, and things like skiing and swimming all cost money.  But I certainly digress.  (This has been a pet peeve for a long time.  Forgive me for getting off on this tangent.)  For anyone reading this who is also overweight or under-exercised, please feel free to use my experience as incentive to make your own health and well-being a priority.  NOTHING produces greater health benefits than eating right and exercising often.  (Except possibly a healthy attitude.)
  5. “Nearly all processed meats are made with sodium nitrite: breakfast sausage, hot dogs, jerkies, bacon, lunch meat, and even meats in canned soup products. Yet this ingredient is a precursor to highly carcinogenic nitrosamines — potent cancer-causing chemicals that accelerate the formation and growth of cancer cells throughout the body. When consumers eat sodium nitrite in popular meat products, nitrosamines are formed in the body where they promote the growth of various cancers, including colorectal cancer and pancreatic cancer, says Adams.” “Sodium nitrite is a dangerous, cancer-causing ingredient that has no place in the human food supply,” he explains. “The USDA actually tried to ban sodium nitrite in the 1970’s, but was preempted by the meat processing industry.”*      (This makes me very angry.  The USDA saw the causal negative effects and allowed itself to be bullied by the corporate meat industry.  ARGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!!)
  6. Radiation.  A couple decades ago when I was in full-throttle activist mode, I was blessed to have read about (or did I actually hear her speak?) Rosalie Bertell, Ph.D.   She is a Canadian scientist who discovered (over and over again) the link between radiation and cancer.  One study I remember hearing about included doing extensive surveys of large numbers of cancer patients and reviewing every possible factor in the patient’s history.  The one factor large numbers of them had in common was the number of x-rays they had had.  From there, she went on to research the effects of background radiation, low-level radiation, and nuclear power plants.   Check out this website to see the truly impressive list of her credentials and the multitude of articles and papers she has written in her lifetime.  This woman deserves a Nobel Prize.

Okay, I think I have answered my question about “patient’s history.”

I hope that by revealing some of my own personal choices and unfortunate habits, I can be a model for you of what NOT to do, so that the chances of you – or your daughters and granddaughters – getting breast cancer will be minimized.


Be well, dear ones.

P.S.  In my next blog entry, I will share other ways we can prevent breast cancer.  Please stay tuned for that important post!

* (Forgive me.  I don’t know how to get rid of these darn underlines and blue words.  The tool bar in this website doesn’t seem to allow me the proper options.  I’ll try to get some tech help for this in the future.)