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Breast cancer and the menopause

Although reaching the menopause is not linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, breast cancer risks do increase with age.

Some medications used to manage menopausal symptoms affect a woman's breast cancer risk.

There can be a link between some breast cancer treatments and menopause starting early for some women.

What are the risk factors for breast cancer?

Certain factors increase the risk of developing breast cancer. However, having many risk factors does not mean a woman will develop breast cancer and having no risk factors does not mean she will not develop the disease.

Most women who develop breast cancer will have already been through the menopause but around 20% are under 50.

Personal risk is also greater if an immediate female family member (mother, sister or daughter) has had breast cancer, particularly if it was at an early age. Also, women who have had a breast biopsy (removal of breast tissue) that shows certain types of benign disease, such as atypical hyperplasia, are more likely to get breast cancer.

Other risk factors include:

  • Having had cancer in one breast (may recur or develop in other).
  • Late-onset menopause (after age 55).
  • Starting menstruation early in life (before age 12).
  • Having a first child after age 30.
  • Never having children.

Does hormone replacement therapy (HRT) increase the risk of breast cancer?

Hormone replacement therapy may be given to women who have menopausal symptoms.

HRT does increase a woman's risk of breast cancer. Combined HRT increases the breast cancer risk more than the oestrogen only version.

The longer a woman is on HRT, the greater her chances may be of being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Around 3 out of 100 breast cancers in women in the UK are linked to HRT.

Doctors do not recommend HRT for a woman who has had breast cancer because it can increase the risk of the breast cancer coming back.

Can I prevent breast cancer?

While there is no definitive way to prevent breast cancer, there are steps you can take to detect the disease in its early stages and increase the chances of successful treatment.

These include being breast aware and looking out for lumps or changes and attending NHS breast screening when invited.

Some lifestyle factors can affect the risk of breast cancer. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing breast cancer after the menopause.

Regular exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Drinking too much alcohol increases a woman's risk of developing breast cancer.

Having an unhealthy diet, including eating too much fat, and also consuming large amounts of saturated fat, increases the chances of developing breast cancer.

Smoking increases the risk of breast cancer.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

Detection of breast cancer in its early stages - hopefully before it moves outside the breast - can significantly improve the chances that treatment will be successful. The survival rate from breast cancer increases when the disease is detected and treated early. Breast cancer may be detected when a woman notices changes herself; when her doctor finds an abnormality during a physical examination; or when a possible cancer is picked up during a screening mammogram.

Mammography is an important method of early detection that uses low doses of X-rays to take a picture of breast tissue. The purpose of a screening mammogram is to find abnormalities that are too small to be seen or felt. However, mammograms will not detect all breast cancers, which is why breast awareness is very important.

If you are worried that you could be at increased risk of breast cancer, seek medical advice.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on June 12, 2017

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