How to Understand and Manage Your Risk of Breast Cancer

How to Understand and Manage Your Risk of Breast Cancer.

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The average woman has a 12 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. And for some women with hereditary factors, the risk of breast cancer is two to five times higher. 

For some, the thought of cancer can be overwhelming and frightening. However, knowing your risk level can help you to take precautionary measures that may aid in early detection or potentially prevent it altogether. 

When it comes to your breast cancer risk, it’s always better to know so you can take steps to detect it early. On the #MedStarHealthBlog, genetic counselor Emily Kuchinsky explains what you need to know about managing your risk:
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What are breast cancer risk factors?

A risk factor is anything that increases the likelihood of developing breast cancer. Some breast cancer risk factors can be changed, like lifestyle habits, while other factors cannot, such as your genetic makeup. And while some risk factors may only slightly increase your risk of developing breast cancer, having a combination of several risk factors can inflate your chances of the disease.

Risk factors within your control.

You can’t always prevent breast cancer, but you may be able to lower your risk of the disease by changing lifestyle habits associated with an increased risk of cancer. The following factors can increase your risk:

  • Being overweight: Fat cells make estrogen, which is often a fertilizer for breast cancer cells. When you have more adipose tissue, you have higher levels of estrogen circulating in your body, which increases your risk, especially after menopause. 
  • Excessive alcohol consumption: For women, drinking more than one drink per day can elevate their risk for breast cancer. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to elevated estrogen levels in the body.  
  • Smoking: Tobacco use is also associated with an elevated breast cancer risk.

Risk factors you can’t change.

Our risk for breast cancer increases as we age, and there’s nothing we can do to stop the aging process. We also can’t control the following:

  • Genetic makeup: Certain gene mutations or changes can be passed down from your parents and may increase your risk of cancer. For example, BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are associated with a higher risk of breast, ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.
  • Onset of menstruation and menopause: The more menstrual cycles you have in your lifetime, the higher your risk of breast cancer. If you started your period before age 11and/or began menopause after 55, you may have a slightly elevated risk of getting breast cancer. 
  • Family history of breast or ovarian cancer: You may have a higher risk if a first-degree family member has had the disease. This is true even if your genetic testing does not reveal any sign that you are genetically predisposed to breast cancer. 

Determining your breast cancer risk.

When you know your risk, you are empowered to take control of your own health. There are several ways you can find out your risk of breast cancer:

Talk to your primary care provider. They know your personal medical history and can keep a thorough record of your family’s history. Because they stay up-to-date on screening guidelines, they can help you understand at what age and how often you should have a mammogram and possibly a breast MRI, depending on your risk level.

Take a quick risk assessment. A breast health risk assessment can help you understand your risk factors and what to do about them. The questionnaire will ask you about your personal health, lifestyle, and family history, which will help you discuss your next steps with your doctor, including whether or not you should seek genetic counseling. 

Meet with a genetic counselor. If you have family members with breast cancer or ovarian cancer, you may benefit from genetic counseling. A genetic counselor can perform a thorough risk assessment and help you determine if you have an average, moderate, or high risk of developing the disease. In some cases, they may recommend genetic testing which can identify any changes or mutations in cancer genes that predispose you to a much higher risk. For example, certain high-risk breast cancer genes, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, can increase your lifetime risk to 50 or 60 percent. Other gene mutations may moderately increase your risk to a 20-40 percent lifetime risk for breast cancer.

Your partner in managing and lowering your risk.

Regardless of your risk level, there are several options for managing and even lowering your risk. Women with an average risk level should begin mammograms around age 40. Women with a moderate or high risk may consider additional options, including earlier or more frequent screenings which help to detect cancer early. Fortunately, breast cancer is easily treatable in early stages, which is why early detection is so important.

Women with a very high risk may opt to have their breasts removed altogether, which reduces the risk of breast cancer by over 90 percent. It’s not for everyone, but for those who have watched family members battle breast cancer, preventative
surgery can offer peace of mind.

In either case, you don’t have to navigate breast care alone. At MedStar Health, we have a dedicated clinic for women considered high-risk. Our breast cancer experts can help you understand your risk and take control so you can go on to live a long life. We do this by:

  • Meeting with you once or twice a year
  • Providing education and resources for you and your family if you carry a genetic mutation 
  • Recommending the right type and frequency of screenings based on your risk level
  • Helping you understand your options for lowering your risk
  • Connecting you to our nationally-accredited breast clinic, where we’ll help you navigate regular screenings

We walk step-by-step with you so you always know your options, where to go, and who to call if you have questions or concerns. While it may seem easier to look the other way, knowing your breast cancer risk puts you in the driver’s seat so you can steer yourself to good health.


Find out your breast cancer risk today.

Click the button below to take the breast health quiz.

Breast Health Quiz


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