Simply being a woman and getting older puts you at an increased risk for breast cancer. Experts estimate that 1 in 8 women alive today will get breast cancer. That's a scary figure, but it shouldn't leave you feeling helpless.
Instead, take time to learn more about breast cancer and the steps you can take to protect yourself.
What is the average risk?
Age is the most important risk factor for breast cancer. Simply, the older you get, the greater your chance of getting breast cancer.
- By age 40, the risk is 1 in 233.
- By age 50, the risk is 1 in 69.
- By age 60, the risk is 1 in 38.
- By age 70, the risk is 1 in 27.
So where did that scary 1-in-8 figure come from? That's what is called a lifetime risk, and it's based on a 90-year lifespan. There are two ways to look at this:
- If a woman lives to be 90 years old, the chance that she will get breast cancer at some point in her life is about 1 in 8 (or 13 percent).
- Across the same long lifespan, the chance that a woman will never get breast cancer is about 7 in 8 (or 87 percent).
In other words, there's a much greater chance that a woman won't get breast cancer than that she will. Still, every woman should do what she can to lower her risk and protect her breast health.
What raises the risk?
In addition to aging, other factors are known to put a woman at higher-than-average risk for breast cancer. You may be at higher risk if you have any of the following risk factors:
- A personal history of breast cancer. If you've had breast cancer once, you're more likely to get it again than someone who's never had it.
- A family history of breast cancer, especially in a mother, sister, or daughter.
- Certain benign breast conditions, such as atypical hyperplasia.
- Changes in certain genes (BRCA1 or BRCA2), which can be found with genetic testing.
- No full-term pregnancies or first full-term pregnancy after age 30.
- Starting your period before age 12.
- Going through menopause after age 55.
- Taking hormones after menopause.
- Being white. White women are at higher risk than Asian, Latina, or African-American women.
- Radiation therapy to the chest before age 30.
- Having dense breasts.
- Having taken DES (diethylstilbestrol). This drug was prescribed in the 1940s through 1960s to help prevent miscarriage. Women whose mothers took this drug may also be at higher risk of breast cancer.
- Being overweight after menopause.
- Not being physically active.
- Drinking alcohol. The more you drink, the higher your risk.
If you have any of these risk factors, discuss them with your doctor.
If you don't have any risk factors, it doesn't mean you won't get breast cancer. It just means you are at average risk. Most women who get breast cancer don't have any known risk factors.
What can a woman do?
Getting screened for breast cancer is one of the best things you can do for your health. The best way to find cancer is with a mammogram. Other screening tests include a clinical breast exam and self-exam.
- Mammogram. A mammogram is a special x-ray of your breasts, and it's the best way to detect breast cancer early. A mammogram can find breast cancer years before a lump can be felt.
- A clinical breast exam is done by a doctor or nurse. The breast exam gives women a chance to talk with their doctor about any changes in their breasts and their risk factors.
- Self exam. If you notice any changes in your breasts during a self-exam, talk to your doctor right away. Changes may include:
- A lump or thick area in or near the breast or underarm
- Nipple pain or tenderness
- Nipple that turns in (retracts)
- Red or scaly skin on the breast or nipple (may have ridges or pits like an orange peel)
- Fluid (other than milk) leaking from a nipple
They may not mean cancer, but it's best to find out right away.
Ask your doctor what tests are right for you and at what age you should begin testing
Created on 10/04/2001
Updated on 06/15/2011
- National Cancer Institute. Probability of breast cancer in American women.
- BreastCancer.org. Breast cancer risk factors.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast cancer statistics.
- National Cancer Institute. What you need to know about breast cancer.