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Risks and causes of breast cancer

Around one in eight women in the UK develop breast cancer during their life, making it the most common cancer in women.

Around 50,000 women and 400 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year.

It isn't usually possible to know exactly what causes a person's breast cancer.

Something that increases the chances of developing a condition is called a risk factor. With breast cancer, some risk factors cannot be influenced, such as those cancers that are genetically inherited. However, other risks may be able to be reduced or modified.

Having a risk factor or several risk factors doesn't mean a person will definitely develop breast cancer, but the chances may be higher.


Here are some breast cancer risk factors:

Age and development

The chances of developing breast cancer increases with age, which is why the NHS breast screening programme invites women aged 47 - 73 years old for screening. Some women with a family history of breast cancer may be screened sooner.

Eight out of 10 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are over 50. However, the disease can still affect younger women and men.

Life's milestones also appear to have an effect. Starting periods early seems to increase the risk, as does late menopause.

Having children younger and breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer.

Family history

Most cases of breast cancer are not inherited and don’t run in families. However, having a close relative, such as a sister or mother, who has had breast cancer or ovarian cancer may increase the risk. Having a male blood relative with breast cancer will also increase a woman's risk of the disease.

Genes called BRCA1, BRCA2, TP53 and PTEN are linked to breast cancer.

Weight, shape and exercise

Being overweight or obese and having a high body mass index ( BMI) increases the risk of developing breast cancer after the   menopause. Being tall is also thought to increase a woman's risk of breast cancer after the menopause.

Regular exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer by as much as a fifth. Currently it’s recommended to do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week.

Alcohol diet and smoking

Drinking too much alcohol increases a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. According to Cancer Research UK the risk increases with every extra unit of alcohol consumed per day.

Having an unhealthy diet, including eating too much fat, and also consuming large amounts of saturated fat, increases the chances of developing breast cancer. A healthy balanced diet, lower in fat and with at least 5-a-day portions of fruit and vegetables is recommended.

Smoking increases the risk of breast cancer, and the risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked.

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