Breast cancer risk factors and prevention in women and men

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Risk Factors of Breast cancer

Risk factors for breast cancer are many and some are modifiable while some are genetic. This shows that breast cancer can be prevented by modifying the risk factors that are caused by our lifestyles whereas having the breast cancer genes in families are non-modifiable risk factors. The risk of having breast cancer is more in females than in males but that does not mean that men cannot have breast cancer. Both men and women are at risk of breast cancer but it is more likely that it will occur in females than in males and the reason is mainly because of a chemical produced more by women than men. This chemical is known medically as a Hormone. The name of the hormone is called Estrogen. The more you are exposed to estrogen, the more likely you will have breast cancer; this is the most important reason why women have breast cancer than men.

The Incidence rate of Breast cancer in the world according to the International Opportunities in Cancer management
The Incidence rate of Breast cancer in the world according to the International Opportunities in Cancer management


The exact cause or etiology of breast cancer is not known; hence the risk factors are relied upon to assess those that are predisposed to getting breast cancer. Risk factors help us to know the main reason why some people have breast cancer and some do not. It does not mean that you must have breast cancer if you have these risk factors, but it shows that you are more predisposed to having it than those that are not. The higher the risk factors you have, the more likely you will also have breast cancer. Some people may have these risk factors but may not have breast cancer whereas some may have less risk but may still get breast cancer. The best thing you can do to yourself is to reduce the risk by following the guidelines to prevention of breast cancer listed in this article.

Classification of risk factors for breast cancer

  1. Modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors
  2. Environmental factors
  3. Genetic factors
  4. Lifestyle or behavioral factors

Modifiable risk factors are those things that when you alter them, it can greatly reduce the risk of breast cancer. Whereas the non-modifiable risk factors are those that cannot be altered. Examples of modifiable risk factors include practice of doing an exercise every day or stopping a sedentary lifestyle.

Environmental factors are those that predispose a woman or man to have breast cancer as a result of the exposure to ionizing radiations. If you have been exposed to ionizing radiations because of therapy or because you live or work where they are, it means you are at risk of breast cancer. Examples of these ionizing radiations include X-rays, Gamma rays, alpha and beta rays. X-rays are frequently used in the hospitals for diagnoses of diseases but repeated exposure to these rays predisposes us to having breast cancer. Those who work inside the x-rays room are at more risk and this is why they are advised to wear protective clothing. If you live near a place where there are ionizing radiations, you are at risk. Breast cancer is most common in people living in countries such as Sweden (highest rate in the world), United States, Italy, Netherlands, United Kingdom, France, Germany etc.

Airline travellers and airline crew are at more risk because of exposure to cosmic radiations than those not using airlines.

Those who live near Nuclear power plants, Oil and Gas extracting (drilling) industries, coal mining and metal mining/smelting industries are also at risk of breast cancer. It is best to live far away from industries and working in these industries predisposes to having breast cancer.

Those undergoing Radiotherapy for a different tumor are at risk of breast tumor because of the radiation from the radiotherapy machine that might irradiate the breasts.

Non-ionizing radiations do not cause breast cancer and examples of non-ionizing radiations include radio waves, microwaves and infrared waves; these do not cause breast cancer.

Lifestyle and behavioral factors also increase the likelihood of getting breast cancer. Living a sedentary lifestyle predisposes to breast cancer. A sedentary lifestyle is defined as taking less than 5,000 (five thousand) steps per day. It shows that if you do not walk more than 5,000 steps in a day, you are living a sedentary life and it is not just about those staying indoors but even those who move out but could not move 5,000 steps in a day. Another lifestyle is taking of alcohol; this has been a risk factor to many medical conditions and not just breast cancer alone. Obesity or over weight increases the risk of breast cancer and many more. Other factors will be explained further.

The genetic factors include certain people having a set of genes that are known to increase the likelihood of getting breast cancer. These genes are BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes. The closer a family member with Breast cancer is to you, the more likely your chance of getting breast cancer. If the family member is a twin, the chances are doubled; if the person is a relative (uncle, aunty, cousin, nephew or niece etc.) the chances are less than those who have a sibling or mother or father with breast cancer.

List of most common Risk factors for Breast cancer

  1. Having a family member with breast cancer
  2. Increasing age
  3. Female gender
  4. Early age of starting menstrual cycle (menstrual cycle starting before the age of 12 increases the risk of breast cancer)
  5. Not giving birth before the age of 35 years
  6. Not breast feeding babies increase the likelihood of getting breast cancer
  7. Having less than 2 babies
  8. Late menopause (menopause occurring after age of 55 years)
  9. Women in their menopause that are taking estrogen for Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for more than 10 years
  10. Exposure to ionizing radiations such as x-rays
  11. Obesity (being overweight): mainly due to increased conversion of steroid hormones to estradiol ( a form of estrogen)
  12. Taking of alcohol
  13. Not giving birth (Nulliparity)
Table showing the risk factors for breast cancer
Table showing the risk factors for breast cancer


Early age of starting menstrual cycle (Early Menarche): starting menstruation at an early age, that is, before the age of 12 makes a woman to be exposed to estrogen for a long time. The more the exposure to estrogen, the more the likelihood of having breast cancer; this is because estrogen plays a major role in breast cancer pathogenesis (the manner at which a disease occur).

Female gender: because of the same female hormone, Estrogen, women are more at risk than males. The downside to men is that, once a man have a breast lump, it is most likely a breast cancer; but a woman with a breast lump may not necessarily be breast cancer.

Increasing age: breast cancer is not common before the age of 20; girls of age 15, 18 or 19 are unlikely to have breast cancer; but the chances gradually increase with age. An elderly woman (65 and above up to 90) coming with a breast lump is most likely breast cancer.

Lack of giving birth before the age of 35: if a woman fails to give birth in time, it means her body will keep producing estrogen more than someone who is pregnant. This is because pregnancy helps reduce the rate of estrogen production and more of progesterone (hormone that helps maintain pregnancy).

Having less than 2 babies: the more the number of babies, the less the chances of a woman getting breast cancer because of the suppression of estrogen during pregnancy. The less the number of babies, the more the amount of estrogen secreted by the body of the woman and the higher her chances of having breast cancer.

Lack of breast feeding of babies: babies benefit from the nutritional value of breast milk and the woman in turn benefit from reduction in the risk of breast cancer because breast feeding suppresses the return of menstrual cycle which could also be a means of contraception too. When the menstrual cycle is suppressed, secretion of estrogen is also suppressed. Breastfeeding also reduce the risk of having ovarian cancer.

Nulliparity: lack of giving birth increases the risk of getting breast cancer more than women with less than 2 children or not breastfeeding because nulliparity combines all the risk of the set of women stated above.

Post-menopausal women on Hormone replacement therapy: the hormone given to women in menopause to help reduce the unwanted and adverse effect of menopause also predisposes them to having breast cancer. This is because the hormone is actually estrogen. Taking HRT for more than 10 years increases the risk of breast cancer. Use of Oral contraceptive pills (OCPs) has little risk in premenopausal women or women in their reproductive age group.

Prevention of Breast cancer

In order to prevent breast cancer, the following should be observed:

  1. Breast cancer screening
  2. Learn how to do a breast examination by yourself so that you can easily detect if there is a lump and get it removed before it grows and metastasize (affect other organs)
  3. Breast feed your baby very well as it is beneficial in preventing other cancers too
  4. Try and give birth before the age of 35 years
  5. Giving birth to 2 or more children
  6. Stay away from alcohol
  7. Eat clean food and avoid getting overweight or having obesity
  8. Do exercise every morning if you are the type that your job does not involve physical work. Jugging, skipping, push-up workout, and other forms of exercise help.
  9. If you have completed your family size (that is, if you have completed the number of children you have and do not need children again) and your family members have had breast cancer (such as your mother and sister or aunty), it is better you get your two breasts removed (Mastectomy). This is the only way to prevent it occurring in someone who has had two or more people in her family with breast cancer. Angelina Jolie is a celebrity who has had her two breasts removed because of the family gene. This may not be easy because of the psychological and emotional effect but it is the only way to currently prevent breast cancer if you have a family history (a non-modifiable risk factor).
  10. Avoid exposure to ionizing radiations. You may need to change your location if you live near places where you could be exposed to radiations as mentioned above

Avoiding these risk factors, and modifying our lifestyle can help to prevent getting Breast cancer. It is worthy of note that breast cancer and Cervical cancer are the leading (most common) cancers affecting women in the whole world and regular screening can really help to ensure prompt medical treatment and avoid advanced forms of cancer.