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Understanding the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer among American women. Only lung cancer kills more women each year. For 2013, estimates for new cases of breast cancer are 234,580 and 40,030 deaths from the disease. While these numbers are high, more people are living with the disease than ever before.

You can take charge of your health by knowing your risk factors. Tell your doctor so you can get targeted care and testing.

Here are some of the top risk factors for breast cancer:


Experts point to estrogen, a major female hormone, as one of the main reasons women get the disease. Though most cases of breast cancer are female, 1% of males get the disease each year. As with women, men with a family history of the disease have a greater chance of getting breast cancer.


After gender, age is the second leading risk factor. Women aged 55 and older are more likely to get breast cancer compared to younger people. In fact, only 1 in 8 cases of breast cancer are women aged 45 and younger.


A woman's race and ethnicity can play a big role in her chances of getting breast cancer:

  • White non-Hispanic women have the highest rate of breast cancer.
  • African-American women have the second highest rate of cases, yet they have the greatest chance of dying from the disease.
  • Korean-American women have the lowest rate of cases.
  • Chinese-American women have the lowest death rate.

Family history

If you have a close family member who had breast cancer, you have a greater risk of getting the disease. Your risk is higher if your family member was under age 50 when the disease was found. Between 5 and 10% of cases are linked to mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. When these genes are normal, they help protect against breast cancer by stopping abnormal cell growth. Mutated genes passed down from either parent raise the risk of getting breast cancer by as much as 80%. Typically, men and women with mutations in their BRCA genes will get cancer when young. Women carrying either mutated gene also run a greater risk for ovarian cancer.

American Jewish women and men of Eastern European descent are more likely to have one of these mutations but they can occur in all racial groups.

While these facts can be scary, the number of survivors is growing, with about three million living today, according to the National Cancer Institute. Improve your chances of living with the disease with regular screenings and a healthy lifestyle.

Sources: American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Susan G. Komen Foundation, National Cancer Institute

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